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496: How to Break The Habit of Distraction with Maura Nevel Thomas

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Maura Nevel Thomas says: "Attention management allows you to unleash your genius on the world."

Maura Nevel Thomas discusses how to take back control of your attention for more productive work days.

You’ll Learn:

  1. How we sabotage our performance every 3 minutes
  2. The simple trick to stopping most office distractions
  3. How to get more satisfaction out of wor

About Maura:

Maura Nevel Thomas is an award-winning international speaker and trainer on individual and corporate productivity and work-life balance, and the most widely-cited authority on attention management. She is a TEDx Speaker, founder of Regain Your Time, author of three books, and was named a Top Leadership Speaker in Inc. Magazine. Maura is a contributing expert to major business outlets including Forbes, Fast Company, Huffington Post, and the Harvard Business Review.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Maura Nevel Thomas Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Maura, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Maura Thomas
Pete, I’m so happy to be here. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, one of the first things I wanted to hear a little bit about was you do some martial arts stuff. Can you tell us about that and maybe any personal safety tips we should know from your learnings?

Maura Thomas
Sure. Yeah, I trained in martial arts and a variety of other self-defense courses for many years. And I think that the most useful tip that I can pass along is don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation. And what I think a lot of people don’t recognize is that if you are in a place that is perhaps not so safe, like out on the street at night by yourself in the dark, or like in a deserted stairwell, or just any place where your personal safety could potentially be at risk, being distracted in that moment is really dangerous, like being on your phone, having headphones in your ear, ear pods in your ear where you can’t hear anything. The smartest thing you can do when you are out and about, especially at night, when you’re alone, in secluded places is be present and aware.

Pete Mockaitis
You know, one time I was actually punched in the face right near a Chipotle and not a bad neighborhood, at around twilight. And you know what? I was looking at my phone and the guy just yelled at me, “Get the F out of the way!” and he might’ve had some mental illness or something going on because he just kept walking after that. In all fairness, I was in his way, and I was distracted, but he could’ve just said, “Excuse me,” and I would’ve gladly stepped to the side. So, I did not heed your wisdom.

Maura Thomas
Well, it’s easy to forget but I think it’s super important.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, lessons learned and I’m fine, if anyone was worried. And I learned a good lesson about compassion because a lot of people, it was spooky, it’s like they don’t want to look at the guy who just got punched.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, anyway, I didn’t think we were going to go there. But, now, we’re doing some disclosing and you’re talking about managing your attention, you’re a real pro at this, you’ve done a lot of research, and there’s a lesson right there. If you don’t manage your attention, there could be personal injury but more likely career and productivity injury. Tell us, what’s a fascinating discovery you’ve made about how we manage our attention and we can do it better?

Maura Thomas
I think the most interesting thing that I have learned is that distraction is a habit, and it is a habit that has been cultivated in us on purpose by our technology. But the idea is that the more distracted we are, the more distracted we will be. And there was a study by Gloria Mark out of the University of Irvine, and she discovered that we switch our attention on average about every three minutes. Three minutes and five seconds to be precise is what her study concluded.

And so, when you do something every three minutes all day long, it becomes a habit. And it is a habit that our technology only cultivates in us because our technology is designed to steal our attention basically, and to keep our attention. The job of the internet is to keep you on the internet. Not only are you distracted by your technology but you’re distracted by other people.

And every few minutes all day long you get a distraction, that becomes a habit that gets really reinforced which means it becomes a really strong habit, which means you can’t just leave it behind when you walk out the door of the office, and you can’t just decide, like, “I’m not going to have that habit right now because I’m on my personal time,” or “Because it’s the weekend,” or, “Because I’m on vacation.” That habit follows you and it sticks with you and it really undermines us.

Pete Mockaitis
Boy, there’s so much that you got me thinking about here. So, three minutes, five seconds, and so in a way I find that a little bit encouraging that if I’m focusing on something for longer than that then I’m kind of making progress.

Maura Thomas
You are making some progress, but think about this, we try to do important things, not only tasks at work that require our brain power, which we were, by the way, hired for, not only tasks, but also interactions, conversations, experiences. And we think that we can fully experience something, fully be present in something, fully apply ourselves in about as long as it takes to toast bread.

And you know what’s really sad about that is that because this habit of distraction has eroded our patience so much, I bet there are many people listening right now saying, “It takes kind of a long time to toast bread.”

Pete Mockaitis
I could check several emails in the time I’m spending toasting the bread.

Maura Thomas
Exactly. And it feels like a minute, two minutes, three minutes is like, “Oh, I got this.” But here’s the thing, your brain requires momentum. It takes you a few minutes, depending on the complexity of the task, or the complexity of whatever it is that is happening to you right at that moment, the experience you’re in. It takes you a minute, or two minutes, or three minutes, or five minutes to get your head into something, right, to build up that brain power momentum so you’re like, “Oh, yeah, I’m in it. I’m totally with you. I hear what you’re saying. I know where we need to go with this project. I have this idea now and I’m going to expand on it,” right?

And when we do our most challenging things, or have our most richest experiences, or our most meaningful interactions, a couple of minutes isn’t enough. It takes more than that to build up that momentum to be there, to apply ourselves, and we almost never get that. And, yet, most of us probably, I’m imagining most of the people listening to this podcast are knowledge workers, which means our job outputs are intangible brain activities, right?

There are things like ideas and creativity, and relationships, and innovation, and analysis, and research, and those things that we use our brain for, and those things that require brain power momentum. That’s what we were hired for.
And so, then we hire those people because we think they have this brain power and these qualities that we want in an employee, and then we put them in a situation where they can’t express those qualities and that brain power in any meaningful way pretty much ever.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, you’re talking about situations in terms of we have a context full of distractions. Or what do you mean by situations?

Maura Thomas
The work environment where they are distracted all day long, and they are distracted all day long as a result of the culture. So, for example, when I’m speaking to an audience, I ask people, “How many of you have two computer monitors?” And some people raise their hand, or I say two or more computer monitors, and pretty much everyone raises their hand, right?

And then I ask, “What is on those monitors?” And people essentially tell me, “Work is on one and email and other communication devices, instant message, whatever, is on the other.” And so how often, when you are at work, are you going to get an instant message or text message or an email? Pretty much all the time.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Maura Thomas
Right? And the company, like imagine you are going into a new job, and you’re walking around and you’re shaking everybody’s hands and you’re meeting people, and everyone has two monitors on their desk. And on each monitor, for everyone, they have some sort of spreadsheet or document or something open on one, and their email and other communication devices open on the other. So, aren’t you going to get the impressions like, “Okay, this is how we do things. Sign me up for my two monitors so that I can leave my email open all the time”? And the average person gets an email every two to four minutes.

And so, it’s sort of by design that these people that we bring in because of their brain power are unable to apply their brain power. And that’s just one of the many ways that the culture sabotages performance.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I guess we also have sort of the open-office plans that are in vogue and then folks are sort of dropping by all the time and then plenty of other things, whether it’s if you have Slack, the instant messaging there. Okay. So, I’m with you there, there’s plenty of things that disrupt our attention and pull us all over the place. So, I want to dig into the how. But maybe, first, could you maybe inspire us with a case study or research or an example of what’s really possible in terms of the leap a professional can make with their attention management in the current state versus an ideal state?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, I think the most recent example I have actually is in someone’s personal life. So, I was at a client this morning, in fact, and I was talking to one of the women, Kristine. And I had just finished the attention management portion of the training that I was delivering at this company and so Kristine and I were talking after that, and she’s like, “You know, this whole idea of distraction as a habit is so true.” She said, “I recently went out on maternity leave, and when my son was born, I would be holding him, and the urge to hold my phone in the other hand was overwhelming.”

She was like, “Here I have this perfect life, and my baby is only going to be this age once, and I’m looking into his beautiful face, and there was still part of my brain going, ‘You know, just pick up your phone. Maybe you have some messages.’” And she said, “I was so dismayed by that that it was so hard for me to be present in these first moments of my son’s life because I was so distracted by my phone, which wasn’t even around, I was just thinking about it and feeling like I should have it, feeling like I was missing, not even missing out, but missing something. Like there’s something missing. Like, ‘Oh, my phone is not in my hand. That’s the problem.’”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah.

Maura Thomas
And she told me that it took her a few weeks on maternity leave and she had to work really hard to overcome that urge to not multitask while she was interacting with her baby, right? And she was upset by it. She was like, “I cannot believe that my newborn infant didn’t seem like enough for me in that moment.” But she was out on maternity leave for a couple of months, and she really kicked that habit of distraction, and she found that time with her child so much more rewarding.

And there are new studies out. I just saw sort of the headline of one that talked about the impact that when parents have the TV on, their interactions with their children go down. When they have some sort of technology distraction around them, the number and quality of interactions with their children go down.

So, she was able to kick the habit and she had a much better time with her child while she was out for those two months, because most people don’t get that opportunity to spend all of this precious time with their newborn. You get maybe a week, six weeks, or eight weeks or something, and then you’re not with them. If you have to go back to work, whether it’s a mother or a father, right, or whatever parent, you are not with them after that because you have to go back to work for most of the day.

If Kristine hadn’t been aware and had just sort of felt like her phone is fine in her hand, how much of those first, that early life of her child would she have missed because she was distracted?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that is powerful, and I’m glad to hear there’s a happy ending there. And this reminds me of my favorite tweet of all time, which just sort of made me chuckle, and it went like this, I think you’ll get the joke. I don’t think the tweeter was trying to make a joke, but the tweet read, “Holding my child and just so present in this moment.”

Maura Thomas
Uh-huh. Me thinks you are not as present as you think you are, right?

Pete Mockaitis
All right then. So, it’s a habit, it can creep into all aspects of our life even during very privilege times. So, what do you recommend is the means of building a new habit that will serve us better?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, the first thing is that we need to become aware of how often we are distracted because I think a lot of people think that this isn’t a challenge for them. Kristine herself said, “I didn’t notice until I was home with my child on maternity leave.” Apple came out with a study, I think it was in 2015, so I’m sure the number has changed quite a lot now, but even in 2015 it showed that we unlock our phones 80 somewhat times a day. Eighty times a day, 80+ times a day that we unlock our phones.

And so, what else is going on in that moment that you are unlocking your phone and doing something on it? Are you driving? Probably often. Is there somebody else in your presence? Often probably. Are you having an experience? Capturing an experience so that we can have the memory is really important. So, taking pictures, for example, on vacation is really important. But posting those pictures on Facebook and Instagram, probably not that important in that moment, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Maura Thomas
So, becoming aware of how distracted we are, because you can’t change a habit that you don’t know you have, right? Wayne Dyer said, “Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” And so, that’s really important, is becoming aware. And becoming aware of how technology lures us into that habit, right? I mean, you know all of the persuasive technology and all of the ways that technology developers are studying neuroscience and cognitive psychology and behavioral science to figure out what are our human tendencies and how can they exploit those to keep us using our technology longer.

So, one simple example is that human beings look for natural stopping points when we’re doing something, right? Like, if you’re reading a book, you might be like, “Well, when I finish this chapter then I’ll stop.” And have you noticed? So, that’s a thing that we do. Human beings, we look for natural stopping points, and so technology developers have recognized this, and so they have taken away the stopping points. I mean, have you noticed that on Facebook or on LinkedIn or on YouTube, when you are scrolling, there’s no bottom of the page? It just keeps reloading.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, it just keeps loading more.

Maura Thomas
More and more and more. So, they said, “Well, they’ll stop if there’s a stopping point so we need to make sure that there are no stopping points, right?” It’s the same reason why casinos don’t have windows, right?

Pete Mockaitis
“Oh, hey, it’s nighttime, I need to go home.“

Maura Thomas
Exactly. Exactly. There’s no clocks and there’s no windows in casinos because those are sort of stopping points that we would say, “Oh, maybe I should leave now.” “So, let’s take those away.” So, recognizing how we are being manipulated, and I don’t say this to make technology companies be the bad guy. I love it by any stretch of the imagination. I love my technology as much as anybody else. On the other hand, we need to control our technology, and that’s another step.

Our technology will control us if we allow it to. And so, one of the ways to overcome this habit of distraction is to exert some control over our technology, whether it’s off or silent, not vibrate, or airplane mode, or “Do Not Disturb,” or shutting off the notifications, shutting off all those little red numbers that those notifications in the little red circle that just calling your attention.

All of those things, if we don’t exert any control over our technology, our technology controls us, and then that habit just becomes stronger and stronger and stronger, and chips away at our attention span, and chips away at our patience, and chips away at our ability to apply ourselves in any meaningful way, not just our wisdom and our knowledge and our experience, but also our empathy and our compassion and our humor and our kindness.

Pete Mockaitis
Maura, I completely agree. I don’t know if it’s angry but I react strongly when an app requests, it’s like, “Such and such would like to send you notifications.” It’s like, “Well, you are denied. You may not send me a notification.”

Maura Thomas
Exactly. Exactly.

Pete Mockaitis
I guess I’m okay with that I hope my friends and family are too that I’m not made aware of their text message until maybe hours later because I don’t allow the badge or the buzz to let me know if there’s a new text message for me because I think that drives me insane in terms of, “I’m trying to have a great conversation with Maura right now, so those text messages will have to wait for a moment.” And I think I’m better for it, and I hope that everyone else is okay waiting a little while.

And, very rarely, have I been prompted in terms of, “Hey, what’s going on? You’re rude.” So, I think whatever fears that folks have are, some maybe real in terms of particular stakeholders, you know, you can have some conversations, but I think for the most part I think people are kind of chill, and they say, “You know what, I wish I could do that too. That’s great.”

Maura Thomas
Well, you know, let’s face it, it’s not like you’re going off the grid for days at a time. It’s like an hour here and there, 30 minutes, right? We’re not going to forget to check in with our messages. You know, what I say to my clients is, “Check your messages, check your phone as often as you feel like you need to, but just do it in between other things, not during other things.”

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, we talked about, all right, becoming aware, we’re controlling our technology. What else should we do?

Maura Thomas
So, the next thing is that we need to control our environment because we have, even in an open office, we have more control over our environment than we exert. So, for example, people think, “Well, the office is loud, and it’s busy, and there are people walking by me, and interrupting me, and distracting me all the time, and that’s just the way it is, and I have to just adapt.”

But the truth is if you gave your colleagues some signal, a sign, right, maybe with some people it would need to be a more overt signal than with other people. But if you had a sign on the back of your chair that said, “Deep work in progress,” or something, “Important work in progress,” “Working on my flow. Please do not disturb,” whatever it says, let your personality shine through, but whatever it says, if your coworker saw that, they would be less likely to interrupt you anyway. Unless if you can’t make a sign and put it up and just leave it there all the time because now a sign doesn’t mean anything, right?

Pete Mockaitis
Certainly. “Then you’re not flowing 100% of the time, nobody is, we don’t buy it.”

Maura Thomas
That’s right. So, you have to be judicious about it and say, “No, really, when I’m going to do important work, and I need to build up that brain power momentum, that’s when the sign goes up. And when I’m done with that, that’s when the sign comes down.” And if you do that, and so I tell my clients, “I don’t know if it should be 20 minutes every hour, or an hour a few times a day, or the frequency and the duration is completely up to you, and it also depends on the nature of your job.”

Some people’s jobs are more collaborative than other people’s jobs. If you are the office manager, you probably have more interactive work than if you are a programmer, and you probably need more focused time. So, it’s up to you to say, but if you have anything that requires any amount of your brain power in any meaningful way, then there has to be sometimes when you can be undistracted.

And so, whether that means a sign, or headphones, or if you’re lucky enough to have an office with a door and you’d close it, or you’re going into a conference room that nobody is using, or whatever it is, but you have to exert some control, and then you have to honor. You have to create those boundaries and then you have to honor those boundaries, right?

So, if you have your sign up, and somebody interrupts you anyway, then you have to say to them, “Did you see the sign? I’m sorry. Unless this is an emergency,” then your sign should say something about emergencies, “But unless this is a true emergency, please don’t interrupt me.” And then if they do anyway, you have to say, “Could you come back when the sign comes down because I can’t help you right now?” In whatever language, whatever way you feel is appropriate to do that, but you have to because if you put the sign up and people interrupt you anyway, and then you say, “Okay, what do you need?” Well, you’ve just taught them that the sign doesn’t mean anything, right?

Pete Mockaitis
That’s good. All right. So, we become aware, we control our technology, we control our environment, and what else?

Maura Thomas
I like to think of controlling your attention as a practice. It’s a little bit like healthy living, right? There are so many things that can fall under the heading of healthy living, and when you do some of them, then you start to do other ones of them. And then you discover things that maybe you didn’t even know about before.

So, I think sort of getting on the path to attention management by when you start to control your technology, and you start to control your environment, those two things then allow you to start recognizing your habits and to start resetting your habits and changing, interrupting those distraction habits and substituting instead. Instead of chipping away your attention span, you start to build it back up. Instead of chipping away at your patience, you start to build it back up.

And so, I think beginning there is sort of the first step. And then there’s, you know, you can experiment with mindfulness or meditation. There are some kind of advanced strategies, thinking about flow and how best to engage your flow. But I feel like that’s sort of Attention Management 201, and if people just got started with Attention Management 101, those are some sort of baby steps.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’d love to hear some of the specific practices that you think make a huge impact in terms of, “Okay, these are some of your first baby steps, they’re going to do a whole lot for you.” What would you put in those categories?

Maura Thomas
Well, certainly the technology and environment control steps. So, figuring out what is your signaling going to be? Because if we talk about building up your brain power momentum, it doesn’t matter how much momentum you have. Once somebody taps you on the shoulder and says, “Hey, Pete, you got a minute?” Poof! Poof! It doesn’t matter how much momentum you had, it’s all gone now.

So, you need to prevent the tap on the shoulder, that, “Do you got a minute?” so that you can maintain that focus. So, one simple thing you can do is figure out what is your “Controlling my environment signal going to be.” And then you need to, depending on how subtle it is, right, if you decide it’s going to be headphones, then you might need to inform your coworkers, at least the people in your immediate vicinity, like, “Look, if the headphones are on means ‘Could you not interrupt me?’”

If you use a sign that says “Do not disturb,” I think it’s going to be pretty clear. Somebody approaches you and your sign is up, it’s like, “Oh, I guess she’s busy. I’ll come back.” So, one easy step that you can do right now is to decide what is your “Do not disturb. Flow in progress sign” going to be, and then start using it right now.

Maura Thomas
Yeah, so another thing is to shut off all of your notifications on all of your devices. Start using silent, not vibrate, more often. Like you said, right, so just you get your messages when you decide it’s time to get your messages instead of when the entire world decides that they want to send you a message, right? I think that we have forgotten that our technology exists for our convenience.

You didn’t go to the store, to the electronic store, and buy your smartphone so that everyone in the world could interrupt you all the time, right? That was not your intention, and yet that’s how most of us behave, “I have this device that anyone in the world can reach me on probably 17 different ways at once, and I let those things all just wash over me constantly.”

So, shutting off all of those notifications and all of those things that tempt you, all of those types of persuasive technology, like the little red circle, the number, that tells you you’ve got notifications because we have this compulsion, like, “I got to clear all the notifications, right? You’ve got to clear them all.” You see what they all are so they can all be cleared. And then just as soon as you cleared all the little circles off your Facebook app and your LinkedIn app, and your Twitter app, and your email app, and your text app, and your phone app, now you got to start all over again.

Pete Mockaitis
Right.

Maura Thomas
So, just get rid of all the little circles and shut off all the notifications and start remembering that you have your smartphone for your convenience not for the convenience of the rest of the world. Because, again, you’re not going to forget. You’ll still probably going to check it multiple times in an hour. It’ll be okay. But in the meantime, you will get lots of stuff done and you will be more present.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. And so, when you talk about getting more stuff done, I want to hear your view on having a proactive workday. How do we achieve that, and what’s the alternative, and sort of can you paint a picture there?

Maura Thomas
Yeah. I talk to so many people who say to me, “I know I was busy all day and I’m exhausted, but I feel like I didn’t get anything done.” And it’s because they spend their days doing whatever happens to them, right? You go into work and people probably approach you as soon as you walk through the door, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. And do you have a minute to talk about this thing?” and your work then gets set.

And even if that doesn’t happen, you probably sit down at your desk, and the first thing you do is check your email, check your messages, check what came in overnight. And all of those things just set the tone for a day of reaction, which means a day of doing everybody else’s stuff and none of yours. And the problem with that, even if you are the person whose job it is to help everyone in the office, or to help all the customers, if you also have anything else to do at all, then you need some time when you are away from the intaking, away from the reacting so that you can be proactive, right?

I tell the leaders that I work with, “If you have a customer service team, even if it’s just two people, and their job is to answer the phone and take in the emails from the customers, if it’s also their job to solve the problems that the customers bring to them, then they need some time away from the intaking to do the solving in a useful way.

We have become a society where I think we believe that faster, like fast customer service equals good customer service. The faster it is the better we are. The better our service is the faster we are. And I think that that is the new race to the bottom. I think price used to be the race to the bottom, and now fast is the race to the bottom because no one can respond immediately. So, employees take away this idea that if faster is better then immediate must be best.

And so, if I have to respond immediately to everything then I always have to have my communication tools open, and if my communication tools are always open, then I’m guaranteed to be distracted every couple of minutes. And if I’m distracted every couple of minutes then I can’t apply the brain power that you hired me for.

And so, again, the practice of attention management allows you to have some time where you are proactive in the day. And when you have spent part of your day being proactive then you leave feeling more satisfied. You leave feeling like you accomplished something. There is a book called The Progress Principle and it’s based on the idea that, of all the things that can boost emotions, motivations, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.

And so, we talk a lot about engagement and work satisfaction, and one of the biggest things that is taking away from that engagement and that satisfaction is the feeling of actually accomplishing things during our day. And we feel like we’re not accomplishing anything during our day because we spend all of our day being reactive. But we only feel accomplishment when we can be proactive, and you can’t be both simultaneously proactive and reactive at the same time.

You can only be productive, productive which I define as achieving your significant results. Well, that’s what the dictionary says — achieving or producing a significant amount or results, that’s the definition of productive. And so, if we look at the personal productivity side of that, achieving a significant result. You can only be productive, achieve your significant results when you can be proactive. And you can only be proactive when you’re not being reactive.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, yeah, this all adds up for me certainly. I guess I’m curious to think about, so how might you measure progress on this so you can feel more satisfaction in a day, you might see sort of what the screen time stats tell you on your phone? Are there any other kind of measures? If we talk about progress being satisfying, if we want to make progress on our attention management and sort of measure and behold and appreciate that progress, what might you point us to?

Maura Thomas
Yes, for knowledge workers, because knowledge work is hard to quantify, when your work output are things like ideas and relationships and analysis, it’s hard to quantify that, “Was I more productive today than I was yesterday?” Attention management is a piece of what I call workflow management, what it’s commonly called in the productivity industry – workflow management. For me, the workflow management system that I teach, in other words, “How do I get stuff done? How do I organize and manage and track and move forward on all the things that I have to do in all parts of my life?”

Well, my answer is you use a workflow management system for that. So, you systematize the way that you operate so that you can get stuff done. And, for me, the foundational component of workflow management is attention management. And so, when you are using a workflow management system, you have all of your work sort of in front of you. And so, a workflow management system not only helps you identify and track and organize and not forget the things that you haven’t done yet. But then a byproduct of that is that you are tracking also the things that you have done.

And so, it’s easy to tell if you are making more progress in a day when you are marking things, not just things off your to-do list but important things, right? Making progress in meaningful work. It feels much better to write an article for most people than it does to answer 10 emails because you have accomplished something, you have something to show for your brain power at the end. But it’s hard to write an article when you are interrupted every two minutes or three minutes.

And so, most of the stuff that we do in a day it never makes it onto our to-do list. It’s that stuff that happens to us. And so, that’s why most people leave work feeling like, “My list got longer, not shorter. I feel like I didn’t get anything done.” But when you can control your attention, when you can be more productive, you are making progress not just on stuff but on the stuff that’s on your list, the stuff that you determined was important to your job, the stuff that means something to you if it gets done, and to your sort of performance, and the ultimate goal that you are hired for.

And so, that’s one way, is that when you are achieving more of the stuff that you put on your list, that you decided you needed to get done, then you’re going to feel more satisfied at the end of the day. Then your job is going to feel more rewarding.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, tell me, Maura, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about some of your favorite things?

Maura Thomas
Yeah, I’ve been talking about this idea of brain power momentum, and the shorthand phrase that I use for this idea is that I call it unleashing your genius. When you are distracted every few minutes, you are sabotaging your ability to build up that brain power momentum, and not only brain power but it’s difficult to bring your humor in two-minute increments, and your empathy in two-minute increments, and your compassion and your kindness and your thoughtfulness, and all of the things that make you uniquely you. It’s hard to apply those things in the time that it takes to toast bread.

And so, when you can control your attention, attention management allows you to unleash your genius on the world, to bring the full range of yourself, your wisdom, and your knowledge, your experience, but all of your unique gifts that are uniquely you, that are packaged in the way that is uniquely you. You can only do that when you can be present, when you can stay focused from more than a few minutes at a time, when you are not constantly distracted in trying to do multiple things at once.

So, unleashing your genius is really the most powerful, I think, and the most satisfying outcome of attention management.

Pete Mockaitis
Absolutely. Well, tell us, then, can you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Maura Thomas
Yes, I have been looking. I think I’m going to have to call a librarian because I’ve been researching to find out who said this first, and I have not had any luck. The quote goes, “It’s not the moments in your life that matter, it’s the life in your moments that matter.” Right? And the life in your moment is the experience you are having in a moment. Are you present? Are you engaged? Are you participating fully in that moment? That is the life in your moments. And I think it’s really true and it’s really powerful. If we live a long life, it doesn’t mean much. I’m not sure it would be as valuable as a shorter life that was full and rich and loving and compassionate and joyful and present.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Maura Thomas
This study recently came out of the University of Texas at Austin, and it found that when we have our phone in our presence, even if it’s off, it absorbs some of our cognitive capacity, which essentially means it makes us dumber in that moment.

And so the study had three groups of people, one group had their phone off but visible, one group had it off but out of sight but still in the room, and the other  people had it completely in another place, and the people whose phone was completely in another room far outperformed the people whose phone was anywhere in their presence. And the people who had it even out of their sight, only slightly overperformed the people who had it out.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing. And how about a favorite book?

Maura Thomas
I am a big fan of Cal Newport. So, Deep Work and his latest Digital Minimalism, so thought-provoking and so important and I’m loving Cal’s work right now.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate and people quote it back to you, like you’re known for?

Maura Thomas
A lot of people remind me that they heard that idea of moments in your life not mattering as much as life in your moments matter. You know they tell me stories about like Kristine’s story with her son and how they change up experiences. I guess the idea of attention management is what people tell me they remember most from when they see me speak or when they interact with me.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Maura Thomas
I would say the challenge that I would pose… the question would be, “How much richer is your life without distraction?” I think the only way you can know is when you can find a way to live without distraction. So that’s the challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Thank you. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Maura Thomas
MauraThomas.com has all the information. My latest book is called Attention Management: How to Create Success and Gain Productivity—Every Day, and being aligned with the title, it is from a line called The Impact Reads, which means it is designed to spark the impact in just one hour.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, cool.

Maura Thomas
I’m sorry, it’s Ignite Reads.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. All right. Well, Maura thanks so much for sharing the good word, and good luck in having many rich moments in your life and full attention.

Maura Thomas
Thanks so much for having me on, Pete. I really enjoyed the conversation.

488: Finding The Productivity System That Works for You with Asian Efficiency’s Thanh Pham

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 Thanh Pham from Asian Efficiency shares his expert tips and favorite resources for optimal productivity.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The biggest productivity myth
  2. How to be more productive while doing less
  3. A simple productivity tip to exponentially improve your focus

About Thanh

Thanh is the Founder and Managing Director of Asian Efficiency. He is considered one of the top thought leaders in the productivity industry and he has been featured in Fast CompanyInc.com,ForbesHuffington Post, and The Globe & Mail. On a day-to-day basis, he is responsible for executing the company’s mission and helping people become more Asian Efficient.

When he’s not sharing his newest productivity wisdom, he likes to drink lots of green tea, eat eggs benedict at hotels, make video blogs, and read non-fiction books.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Thanh Pham Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Thanh, thanks for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Thanh Pham
Thank you, Pete, for having me. I’m excited to be here today.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s always fun to chat with a podcaster that I’ve listened to numerous times. So, it’s sort of like, “Hey, you sound just like you.” And I’m surprised each time somehow.

Thanh Pham
Well, thank you for listening to my productivity show and I’m excited to kind of share what I know about productivity and help people become more productive here today.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, I want to dig a touch into your backstory for a moment and then talk a lot about productivity. So, I understand that you never graduated high school. And I’m curious, is there sort of a productivity transformation story at the root of this or is it just like, “Yeah, I don’t like high school”?

Thanh Pham
It is a combination of both. So, I read this book called Rich Dad Poor Dad, which I’m sure a lot of people have heard of, and I was 13 at the time. So, I read this book and it really changed my life in the sense that it gave me this whole new perspective on what I need to do with my life. And I came from a first-generation immigrant family, and my whole belief was, “Hey, you need to go to school, get trained up, and then get a traditional job.” And I was like, “Okay, let’s do that.”

And then I read this book and I had a completely 180-look on life, and I started my first business when I was 14. So, I remember my mom had to sign off on some paperwork because obviously she had to be liable for anything that would go wrong, me being underage. So, I started a web design agency at that time and I taught myself how to program, how to build websites, and became really successful. I started hiring my high school friends, and they started working with me.

And so, the way the education system works in the Netherlands, where I grew up, if you don’t pass the last year of your high school, you basically don’t graduate and you’d have to do the last year all over again. So, I didn’t pass the test because I didn’t study. I was overly-confident because my business was flourishing, and so I didn’t study and failed the test, and that’s why I ended up dropping out of high school, and just continued to focus on my business.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so you were being productive in other domains as oppose to, “My life was a mess until I discovered these strategies.”

Thanh Pham
Exactly, yeah. So, I’ve always loved learning, I still love learning, whether it is reading on the side or I go to workshops and seminars. So, the learning aspect has actually never stopped, this is a lifelong thing for me but the formal education side of things just stopped when I was 18.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, understood. Thanks for sharing. And, well, you certainly landed on your feet in terms of making things happen in a big way. Your brand is rocking and with Asian Efficiency you’ve got the Productivity Show podcast. And it’s fun, at the beginning of your show, you ask about your guests’ or co-host’s top three productivity resources. I ask about a lot of favorite things at the end of the show, so we’ll do that too. But I’d love to treat you in kind, you’ve seen a lot of resources and mentioned a lot. If you had to pick three for sort of the Lifetime Achievement Awards for you, what would they be?

Thanh Pham
Ooh, that’s a tough question. I’ve seen so many recommendations, part of my job is always testing new things, reading new books, and trying all sorts of stuff, so if I had to just boil it down to three recommendations and three resources, I would say one book I would recommend is called 30 Lessons for Living. So, the basic premise of the book is the author interviewed people who were about to die, and he asked them, “What’s one life lesson you would like to pass on to the next generation?” And this got compiled into 30 lessons.

And so, it gives you kind of an insight of what you really should be doing with your life based on the experiences of people way ahead of you. This is a great book. It really changed my life so I highly recommend that. Another one is a pair of headphones by Bose called the Bose QC35. If you’ve ever flown a plane, you’ve probably seen these headphones.

Everybody tends to wear them nowadays for good reason because it’s the best noise-cancellation headphones on the market, in my opinion. And if you’re somebody who has trouble focusing, if you put on these headphones and play some productivity music, you’ll just be able to focus instantly and tune out all the noise. So, that’s something I personally use every day, also when I’m traveling.

And then the third one is an app called TextExpander. So, TextExpander, as you just said, it is one of my favorite apps. If you use Mac, Windows, it doesn’t matter, it’s also available on iOS, it basically allows you to type things really quickly and have templates that you can use with just a few keystrokes. So, think of it as like keyboard shortcuts on steroids. And once you’ve seen a demo of it, you’ll just go, “Okay, why have I not used this earlier? This is going to change everything for me.”

Pete Mockaitis
I sent you an email today using TextExpander.

Thanh Pham
I have a suspicion.

Pete Mockaitis
I used customized elements.

Thanh Pham
Yeah, we have to send the same scripts and emails out to people, and why type the same thing when you can just type in three or four keystrokes and get the same thing out there?

Pete Mockaitis
Well, cool. Well, that was fun so I wanted to see how that felt, you know, being in your shoes, hitting some three resources at the beginning. So, thank you for those. And I’m also wearing some Bose QuietComfort Noise-Cancelling Headphones right now as we speak. Sometimes I will put earplugs in first, then put on the noise-cancelling headphones, and then play a favorite white noise such as perhaps the engine idling-noise from Star Trek: The Next Generation. I got that from my guest Rahaf Harfoush. But you mentioned productivity tunes, or music, or sounds. What were those that you’re listening to?

Thanh Pham
So, there’s lots of ways to go about this. There’s stuff like Brain.fm that you can use, which is kind of like a service that you can subscribe to and get music from. FocusAtWill is another one that I personally use too. But then if you have, for example, Spotify or Apple Music, you can listen to a lot of albums that don’t have any lyrics because if you start listening to music that have lyrics, it’s really easy to get distracted.

But if you have music that doesn’t have lyrics whatsoever, for example, soundtracks of movies are some of my favorite music to listen to and to work to. For example, The Social Network, the movie that was based on Facebook is one of my favorite soundtracks ever, not because, necessarily, I like the movie so much, which I thought was entertaining, but the soundtrack is just so good and so mellow. Once I put it on, I kind of get into this flow state immediately just because it’s so well-orchestrated. So, soundtrack is a great resource for productivity music, in my opinion.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. My buddy, Brad, likes listening to cinematic soundtracks because he says it feels like when you’re doing work at your laptop, you’re leading an army into battle.

Thanh Pham
That’s really what it feels like, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s fun. Well, cool. Well, we got really deep into the tactical tidbits. I want to zoom out a little bit. So, your website and brand is called Asian Efficiency, which is fun. What’s the story behind that name?

Thanh Pham
Now, obviously I can say that because…

Pete Mockaitis
I was going to say I don’t know.

Thanh Pham
…I am Asian and I look Asian so I can kind of play the part. And having lived in the Western countries, there’s this positive stereotype about Asian people that they tend to be really productive. So, I remember a few years ago when me and my friends, we were vacationing in Florida, and we were committed to working during the daytime and then have dinner at night and just have a good time going out.

And then the next morning after a night out with our friends, I was up early. I was up early doing some work, being really focused, getting stuff done. And by the time it was noon, I was done with everything that I needed to do. And then my friends would come down and they would see me relaxing, doing absolutely nothing, just reading a book, and having a relaxing time, and they go, “Thanh, what is going on? Are you already done?” And I was like, “Yup, I’m already done. I did everything I needed to do. I’m just going to relax for the rest of the day.” And they go, “Wow! How did you do that? That is Asian efficiency right there.” And I said, “Oh, that’s a great catch name. I should register that domain name.”

And so, I registered the domain name and didn’t really think of it at that time of doing anything with it. It wasn’t until a few years later when I started just blogging about productivity and time management and efficiency that I said, “Hey, maybe I should just start blogging about this once a week and share some of the things that I’ve learned over the years with my friends and family.” And that just accidentally turned into a business one year later.

So, it really started off as a passion thing because I just wanted to share with my friends and family what I’ve learned from reading books about productivity and some of the workshops I’ve been to, and just putting it in one place. It was just something I was really passionate about at that time and I never thought it would be a business that it is today. So, it’s just super fortunate that I’m able to do something that I’m really passionate about.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, that’s cool. I think the first time I caught the name, I was like, “Is this about the Toyota LEAN manufacturing system?” I was like, “Oh, no, no, it’s about personal productivity. Okay, yeah, I’m with you.”

Thanh Pham
Yeah, that’s another thing I get quite often too. So, if somebody says that they’re already into productivity, because that’s usually one step further, and then I usually have the inclination just to start geeking out with that person right away because I’m very into that sort of thing as well, especially if you run a business or manage a big team, you’re always looking for interesting philosophies and different ways of doing things, whether it’s with your own self or with people that you work with. And so, there’s so many ways to be productive as a person and be productive as a team. And I love just geeking out about that sort of stuff.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I want to talk about the geeking out dimension first, if I could. So, I think I’ve seen this go a couple ways when it comes to talking about productivity efficiency stuff. You can get lost in sort of this realm of, “Hey, I’m just rearranging my file folders and trying out a new app,” and just kind of like you’re not actually achieving anything. You’re just sort of reshuffling your stuff around in different ways.

And I’ve also seen implementing certain systems and approaches and tools in which you just see sort of like lifechanging benefits. So, could you maybe make the case, if you could, for what are the kinds of gains or benefits we can achieve by implementing some of these efficiency productivity stuff or is it all just a way for nerds to play with new toys?

Thanh Pham
There’s definitely a case for all sorts of situations. And based on the last eight years of me teaching this through the blog, through the coaching programs and other programs that we have, I’ve noticed that there’s a couple things that people can get out of this. One is you tend to create more structure and routine in your life that might be missing. So, a lot of people oftentimes come to us because life is chaotic, there’s a lot of stuff going on, they can’t keep up. And having some sort of structure or routine in place allows people to be more creative, allows people to get more stuff done, and actually achieve the goals that they set out for themselves. So, there’s one big part of that.

Another big part is just having the freedom to choose how you want to spend your time. Oftentimes when we are bombarded with so many things to do or to-do lists, it’s like from here to Tokyo, it’s just endlessly long, and anytime you finish something off in your to-do list, something new pops up on there, and it kind of feels like a battle that you can’t really win.

And so, once we kind of get that under control, then we give ourselves the option to really choose how we want to spend our time. Do we want to do more things on our to-do list or do we want to spend more time doing things like spending time with our family, or starting new business on the side, or just having the option to choose how you want to spend your time and what you want to do with that? And most people would pick one of those two options I would say.

And then there’s this third camp, usually, of people that just love to nerd out, they just love to play with new toys and feel like they’re making progress in their life, and trying new different things. That’s definitely how I    started with everything. But I also had to learn that, you know, at some point there are diminishing returns. There’s only so many task managers that I can try to find the perfect one, or there’s only so many settings that I can change, or there’s so many workflows that I should use before I really start to just spend more time “being or trying to be productive” versus actually getting results, getting stuff done that needs to be done, and then having the time “luxury” to choose how I want to spend my time going forward.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s well-said in terms of those benefits there in terms of we take a life in chaos and then by bringing some calm to it, you enhance your creativity, ability to focus and do the things, and boost your odds of success. And you also experience some freedom as oppose to enslavement to the urgent next thing that comes up. So, those sound like some cool benefits. Do you have any sense for, I don’t know, the magnitude, or quantifiable results, or a cool case study in terms of a life transformed that can really sort of paint a picture for what’s at stake here?

Thanh Pham
Yeah, so a recent example was a client that I worked with. Her name is Lisa and she is an executive at a Fortune 100 company. And so, her role was to report to 23 different executives and helping them make better decisions around payroll. That’s literally her job, is just enforcing certain guidelines, making sure that the executives get the right information that they need to make sound decisions around payroll in this huge company.

And so, on a day-to-day basis, she’s in her email client all day long because she felt like she had to respond to every single email that came in within five minutes. And when you’re reporting to 23 different executives and you have email open all day long, as you can probably imagine, you spend a lot of time doing research, replying to emails, multitasking, doing all these different things, and oftentimes getting lost in the shuffle.

And so, I said to Lisa, “Okay, you spend about seven to eight hours a day in your email inbox. Where do you find the time to actually do stuff?” And she said, “Well, I don’t so I have to take work home with me. I’m staying longer at the office. I don’t have any time for my husband, I don’t have any time to cook, I don’t have any time for myself to practice yoga or to do any form of reading. I basically get up really early, show up for work, stay really late, don’t see my kids and husband that much, and take home work with me, and then stay up late to get stuff done.”

And I said, “Well, do you want to live like this for the rest of your life?” And I’m guessing you probably already know the answer. And she said, “No, of course not. That’s why I came to you.” I said, “Okay, let’s change your approach to how we do things here. So, instead of trying to multitask and trying to do all these different things for all these 23 executives that you have to report to, what if we just do one task at a time and just one executive at a time? So, instead of trying to appease five executives at once with their email requests and the things that you have to do for them, let’s just focus on one executive at a time on certain days and just put some structure in place so you can focus doing just one thing at a time.”

And even though she was doing the exact same work, just changing the practice of, “Hey, I’m just going to focus on this one executive, doing one task at a time, making sure that gets done, gets completely finished, sends it out. And then once that is ‘done’ then I can move onto the next executive.” By just changing that approach and then closing her email clients, because that was the biggest troublemaker in this whole process, is if you have email open all day long, it’s kind of like a to-do list that other people can write on.

And so, it makes it really easy for your to-do list to become endless and then sometimes for certain people very difficult to enforce certain boundaries. And so, she had to close her email client, just focus on one task at a time, one executive at a time, and just changing that approach allowed her to go from eight hours a day in her email inbox to just 45 minutes a day in her email inbox.

Pete Mockaitis
No kidding?

Thanh Pham
Such a simple change but it made a huge difference in her life.

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! So, it’s just sort of like, “Okay, I’m going to check what’s in that email inbox and then I’m going to grab the stuff associated with what I have determined, like this project, this executive, and then go for it.” Well, that’s so striking. And I’m wondering, is the savings here due to just the notion that you’re just continuously interrupted and, thusly, it takes you way longer to get any given thing done because you sort of move your attention from that thing to the next email?

Thanh Pham
Yes, multitasking is I think the biggest myth in productivity because people think that multitasking is a good trait to have, it’s a good thing, that you’re more productive this way but tons of research studies have shown it’s actually the opposite. And when you think about it, anytime you get distracted or anytime you do multiple things at the same time, your brain is actually only able to focus on one thing at a time, and it’s literally designed that way.

So, when you’re, for example, checking email and talking to somebody on the phone, you can’t really do both things. And then imagine having an audiobook playing in the background, and trying to learn, and then having like a Google spreadsheet on another monitor, so if you do those four things at once, there’s just no way you can focus doing all these great and perfectly.

And people who multitask tend to also be slower because anytime you switch focus, we kind of have to just go on this on ramp. We have to kind of like warm up a little bit, kind of think about, “Okay, what was I thinking again? What did I need to do next?” Like, if you talk to your friend on the phone and then write an email at the same time, as soon as you hang up on the phone and you have to continue writing that email, you have to kind of imagine what you were thinking of, what you were doing, what you wanted to say, what you wanted to write next.

And imagine doing that a hundred times a day. So, those two, three minutes can lead to lots of hours of wasted time. And so, if you can just focus on just doing one thing at a time and avoid being distracted and interrupted this way, all these little time ramps of, “Okay, what was I doing? What did I need to do next?” can save you a lot of time over time.

Pete Mockaitis
And what’s interesting, I think sometimes we fall for the myth of multitasking just because of what it’s doing in your brain chemistry. I think Chris Bailey, who we had on the show a couple of times, was talking about how when you switch tasks, there’s a little bit of – is it dopamine or a neurochemical reward of some sort – because like, “Oh, this is new.” And because it feels a little stimulating, it’s almost as though, “Therefore, I am crushing it.” But you’re really not.

Thanh Pham
Exactly. It feels “productive” but when you think about productivity, I mean, there are several definitions that people have. But I think one of the most useful ones is to think about, “Is this getting me closer to my goal? And if it’s not, then I should say no to that or I should just not pay attention to that right now and continue to stay focused on something that actually helps me get things done to accomplish my goal.”

So, if you’re at your job, and you’re part of a team and maybe you have a team goal, getting really clear on what that goal is and making sure that whatever you’re doing every single day is in alignment with that allows you to be really productive. And then it’s not really a matter of, “Okay, did I get five tasks done, or 10 tasks, or 15, or even just one?” If you get the most important things done that are in alignment with what you’re trying to accomplish, whether it’s your personal goal or team goal, then you’re really productive, right?

So, for example, if you want to write a book and publish a book, and your to-do list says you need to write a chapter, you need to review your finances, and you need to book a trip to Las Vegas. Now, all these things could be really important, and they seem really fun things to do for some people, but there’s only one task on that list that’s really the most important one, and that is writing because that is in alignment with your goal which is writing and publishing a book.

And so, once you get really clear about what you’re trying to accomplish, then it’s really easy to find the things that are on your to-do list that are in alignment with what you’re trying to do. And so, when people have trouble setting priorities or trying to figure out what to do first, it’s oftentimes a symptom of just not really having clarity about what they’re actually trying to accomplish.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so now I’m intrigued then. In that example you gave, we had sort of very different items, and I guess depending on your goals of all that might align to certain goals, depending on what’s happening in Las Vegas, and so I guess I don’t know if any human being can answer this for another one but I’m going to go for it. So, if you got, let’s say, I’m writing now sort of my 10 grand life goals. So, if I got these, then naturally certain tasks will bring me closer to certain goals and others to other goals. So, how does one know which one is most important? I suppose it’s a deeply personal process of introspection and values, etc. But how do you tackle this one?

Thanh Pham
I think we also have to look at timelines. So, for example, if you have a goal for getting in shape or being at a certain weight, you can achieve that maybe in 90 days or you can achieve that in 10 years, right? And the strategy is going to change based on what your timeline looks like because if you want to be at a certain weight within the next seven days, your strategy is going to be significantly different than somebody who has to achieve that same goal, let’s say, five years from now, right?

And so, what I think is really important for people to know is to understand where you are right now and what the timeline is for you to accomplish this goal. So, if you have to publish a book, as an example, if you have to do this in 90 days versus one year, your strategy is going to be different. Because if you have to do this in 90 days, then you probably want to change your schedule around, you probably want to limit the things that you do, you might have to sacrifice certain things in order to accomplish this goal. Whereas, if you say to yourself, “You know what, I have five years to do this,” maybe you can get away with writing for 30 minutes a day and just making sure that you do that consistently for the next five years in order for you to accomplish your goal.

And so, I think it’s important for people to realize, “Okay, once I know what my goal is, what is the timeline for this as well?” because that allows us to determine which strategy we should use and how that fits into our day to day.

Pete Mockaitis
Very cool. So, you talk to a lot of different people and sort of putting all this together and your learnings. I’d love to hear, over the years, has there been anything particularly surprising and fascinating that you discovered about the most efficient productive people around?

Thanh Pham
Ooh, well, everybody is productive in their own way. I think if there’s one big takeaway I’ve learned over the years is that even though I have my own way of doing things, and I’m very stubborn in certain ways, I’ve also seen people who are completely opposite of me and achieve extraordinary things as well. And we oftentimes disagree on how we would do something and approach to do something.

So, for example, I have a friend, he has no sense of structure whatsoever in his life. He doesn’t use a calendar, he doesn’t use a task manager, all he has is just a really strong vision and a high desire to achieve something. And so, when he sets his goal to be X, Y, and Z, he will just really visualize what he’s going to do, and just make sure that he’s spending enough time and energy on this goal to get it done, and there’s no sense of like structure or theme, whatever. It’s just, “This is my goal. I’m going to go for it and I will figure out along the way as we go for it.”

And I’m like the completely opposite person. If I set a goal, and this is something I want to achieve, I like to create a plan, I like to figure out ways to get there, I like to know what kind of resources I have, I want to know what my timeline is, and I’m kind of like mapping out this whole “plan.” And once I have this plan, then I will start executing it.

And some people are in between. They like to act fast but also have a plan and mix stuff up as they go. And I’ve just learned over the years that there’s really no one way to be productive. And I think the sooner we can realize that there’s no one perfect way, that everybody is unique in their own way, the faster we can actually focus on, “Okay, let’s just do what I’m good at and make sure I spend most of my time doing that, and everything else can just go to the wayside or has a lower priority for the things that need to be done.”

Pete Mockaitis
And I think that there is no one best way. It seems like a generally agreeable assertion but I’m going to push you on that a little bit. So, I’m wondering, there are folks, I had David Allen again on recently, and so there are folks who would say, “Those who are not doing Getting Things Done, GTD, or externalizing all of their commitments outside their brain into a trusted system don’t even realize they have a low-level of anxiety that’s robbing them of some of the joy they could be having in life.” Is your take that they’re mistaken and some people can be rocking the polar opposite of Getting Things Done and be operating at their maximum effectiveness just fine?

Thanh Pham
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. And when I think about all the different people that, for example, I worked with as clients, people that I have in my company as employees, and how I need to motivate them and get the best out of them, just like when you have multiple kids, you have to treat everybody differently and see how they operate best and what you can do to get the best out of them.

And so, some people have to, for example, be handheld to get to the destination, some people you just have to give them a really vision and tell them, “Hey, this is what needs to be done, and let’s make sure we do this and get it done.” And some people need a plan, they kind of need a roadmap. And so, everybody is very different in that sense.

And while there are certain strategies that I think universally are good practices, like David Allen’s idea of getting everything out of your head, some people, even if they do that, they still wouldn’t stick to something like that because it’s just not how they think and operate. So, while I do think it’s a good practice, if that is something that you generally just don’t like to stick to because it’s not how you like to do things, then it’s kind of hard to actually get the results that you want because, ultimately, you want to follow something and do something that you know you can do consistently over time.

Because I think the key to productivity is, yes, there’s five million ways to get to Rome, but pick the route that works best for you. And just like if you ever take any personality test, you will see that there’s so many different variations and outcomes. And I have this strong suspicion that certain personality types work better with certain productivity workflows and productivity systems.

So, for example, if you’re somebody who’s really creative, a very strong visionary, you really don’t like lists. And so, a productivity system like GTD probably doesn’t really work well for you. Even though there are some elements of productivity systems like GTD that could be useful, but generally GTD is very list-based, whereas that doesn’t really work for people who really consider themselves like visionaries.

But then people like me who love making lists, who love making plans, they love lists, and a system like GTD then is really suitable for them. And so, fortunately, we all have options and there’s different productivity systems out there, and so once you kind of know what the rundown is of what every system is and what they offer, you can then make a really informed decision on what’s going to work best for you.

Pete Mockaitis
Very nicely-said. So, then let’s talk about you. What is your system? And I imagine we can have the multi-hour version of this, but just sort of what is being captured where and how do you go about sort of processing and reviewing your stuff?

Thanh Pham
So, my system has evolved over the years and it’s kind of a hodgepodge of different philosophies and different ideas. I’ve taken ideas from like GTD, from Agile results, from Scrum, from The 12 Week Year, and these are all things that I think are great systems, but I’ve kind of like created my own. And I think this is the destination that everybody will get to at some point. I think it’s a great starting point to follow something like GTD or The 12 Week Year. And then, over time, make it yourself, and that’s kind of what I’ve done.

And so, my system is very heavily-based on OmniFocus. OmniFocus is my favorite tool when it comes to managing tasks and projects. So, anytime I have an idea, or anytime I want to capture something, or remember, or I just want to store somewhere, it goes into my OmniFocus inbox whether I’m on my phone, on my computer, it goes on there first and foremost.

And then, I’m a big calendar user myself, so as someone who uses Mac and iOS for the most part, I’m a big fan of BusyCal. That is my favorite productivity tool.

Pete Mockaitis
How do we spell BusyCal and why is it better than the default iCal? I’m asking for a friend.

Thanh Pham
So, BusyCal is B-U-S-Y-C-A-L.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, it makes sense. All right.

Thanh Pham
And I think it’s the power version of the typical calendar app that comes with Mac OS. One of my favorite features on there is you can actually change the number of days in your week view as an example. So, for most calendar apps, a week view looks like six or seven days ahead, but you can actually change that in BusyCal to be, let’s say, three days or even 10 days if you like, so you can kind of see ahead of time or based on what your preferences are. And it comes with a lot of power user features as well and it also integrates with your contact manager app called BusyContacts.

And so, I use this a lot for networking, stay in touch with people, and then I can actually see, based on certain contacts that I have and people that I’m meeting, what we did because it integrates with my calendar. So, if I’m talking to Billy, for example, tomorrow, I can just pull up his contact record and then see, “Oh, based on our calendar events, we had lunch two weeks ago, we had a phone call in this particular day, we did a podcast together on that day.”

Pete Mockaitis
So, like an auto-pull, like your texting and call history too?

Thanh Pham
Yes.

Pete Mockaitis
Whoa!

Thanh Pham
Yup. So, that’s one of the many reasons I like BusyCal. And if you integrate it with BusyContacts, then I think it’s a great combination, a one-two punch to have. So, that’s kind of like my bread and butter when it comes to just the foundation of the tools and the systems that are there. And when it comes to just syncing everything, I use the Google Sync service for that. So, Google Calendar is kind of like the backbone, but then I use BusyCal as the app on top of that to kind of like manage my calendar on top of that.

And then my other secret weapon, which I’m happy to admit, is my executive assistant. I don’t know how I would be able to run my business, live my life, if she wasn’t there. So, if that’s something that you’re in a position to have as well, I would highly recommend getting an executive assistant.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, your executive assistant, did you sort of hire that person directly or through an agency or service?

Thanh Pham
I hired her through an agency called GreatAssistant.com. So, they specialize in finding high-level executive assistants based in North America based on your personality type and how you work. So, what’s really cool about their service is that you actually have to take this personality test, and then based on the results, they can find somebody who matches your personality type.

So, if you’re, for example, really high-energy or a strong visionary, you need somebody who’s super organized, they can find the right kind of match based on what your personality type is like. So, I really like their service, and I’m not affiliated with them whatsoever, but that’s the one I use.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, does your assistant do some of your email?

Thanh Pham
Yes, she handles my email on a day-to-day basis now. This is something I used to do myself for about 45 minutes or 30 minutes a day, but now I got it down to roughly 5 to 7 minutes a day, thanks to her help. So, definitely a big timesaver as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s cool. Hey, while we’re at it, what are some of the other top tasks you recommend having an assistant tackle for you?

Thanh Pham
Ooh, so we have a weekly meeting for 30 minutes, and so she handles all of my travel. So, she books every single travel, whether it’s personal or business, so that’s a really big task. Another thing is she orders my groceries and food every single week. So, I actually have no idea, every single week, what I’m eating. She orders it for me, and it’s kind of a Christmas surprise every single week of what I’m getting and what I’ll be eating.

She books like routine errands that I have to run. So, for example, going to get a haircut, going to get a massage, going to a float tank, going to a fitness center, workouts with my personal trainer. She coordinates all that sort of stuff every single week for me so that I don’t have to do it, and I just literally look at my calendar and see, “Okay, I need to be at the gym today at this time. Tomorrow I need to be there at that time.” What else? Doctor appointments, or anything else that you have to do, or run errands around town, she handles all of that.

So, when I have my weekly meeting with her, I’ll just say, “Hey, I want to do this, I want to do that,” and oftentimes she’ll bring it up too, and say, “Hey, Thanh, it seems like you haven’t had a haircut in 12 days. Yeah, it’s probably time so I booked something already for you. You should go to the barber shop tomorrow at 4:00 o’clock.” I’m like, “Okay, yeah. Thank you for running my life that makes my life so much easier.”

Pete Mockaitis
Wow! Fascinating sort of imagining that world. Tell me about a float tank. I’m just going to key in on that one, also known as sensory-deprivation chambers. Do you find those valuable?

Thanh Pham
I find them really valuable. I got into them maybe three years ago and I started going just once a month. And I remember the first time I went I didn’t really get much out of it. I was just laying there floating in water and not really knowing what to expect, and I kind of had a neutral experience.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, experience is one can have on this earth, I guess.

Thanh Pham
Right, because when you talk to people, some people go, “Oh, man, it’s amazing and it’s so powerful.” And I was really skeptical because I was already meditating every day for 10 minutes, and I thought, “Well, I’m already meditating for 10 minutes every day, how much better can it really be understanding diminishing returns?”

So, I go in, I have a neutral experience, I’m thinking, “Oh, maybe it’s not worth it.” But I just know so many people that I respect in my personal life and online that just rave about it. So, I continued to stick with it, and I said, “Okay, let’s just commit to doing three total and just then make a decision on whether this is actually useful or not.”

And then I went the second time, and then I kind of like zoned out for 90 minutes. And I just started to notice in the next two to three weeks that anytime there was something stressful in my life, instead of just responding to it right away, I can really just pause and reflect and think before I responded to something. And as if I saw that moment, I realized, “Wow, I’ve never had that until I started floating.” And that’s when I realized how powerful that was.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Thank you. That’s handy. Okay, so we get your system, that’s cool. Boy, there’s so much good stuff to say. So, it sounds like when we had Kevin Kruse on the show, and he mentioned that the most successful people operate from calendars as oppose to to-do lists, it sounds like your assistant is establishing your calendar. But how do you think about that world because you’ve also got OmniFocus and a huge list? So, how do we reconcile this?

Thanh Pham
I think you can marry both. I don’t think it’s one way or the other. If you just operate from your calendar, I think you’re really focused in just managing your time and that is, I think, a dangerous place to be because if somebody is dictating your schedule, it can feel like you can never have time to do the things you need to do.

Whereas if you only focus on tasks and your to-do list, then you can put a lot of things to the wayside and start sacrificing your personal health as an example because I’ve been in a situation before where I just want to work, I just want to focus on my business, and do all these different things for my career, and then I will just not worry about getting a haircut, or going to the gym, or spending time with friends and family. And I was just too much focused on just, “Okay, I need to finish this, I need to do that.” And it starts to come at a certain cost.

And so, I think you can actually combine both. In my system, that’s basically how that works. And the way I approach it on a day-to-day basis is if I can get three tasks done that are really important, I have a really productive day. And it doesn’t matter if it takes one hour, or it can take three hours, or even eight hours, if I can get three really important tasks done, then I had a real productive day. And, usually, I try to build my schedule around that philosophy.

So, the way I, for example, structure my day is I try to get all of my tasks done before noon because that’s when I have the most control in my day, it’s the most quiet, I can kind of dictate my schedule for the most part in the morning so I can really focus, do deep work, and try to get the three things done. And then from there, if I need to have meetings, or calls, or run errands, my schedule kind of then builds around that.

So, my executive assistant, for example, knows that she should never arrange a phone call with somebody between 8:00 a.m. and noon because that’s usually when I try to do deep work and be ultra-focused.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Fair enough. So, that was one of my next questions is how do you have great focus and limit distractions? And part of it sounds like you’re sort of theming or batching different sections of the day, so that’s a cool approach. Anything else?

Thanh Pham
I think a lot of productivity advice out there addresses the symptom but they don’t really address the root cause of this. And this is something I’ve seen a lot of last few years when I started working with clients. And people are always amazed when I tell people, when I first start an engagement with them, that, “One of the first things we’re going to do is have you sleep more.” And people go, “Thanh, I want to be more productive. I actually want to get more things done. I need to get more things done. I’m behind on work. Sleeping is probably the last thing I need right now.”

And I always get this look, and I say, “Trust me. We’re going to get you to sleep more and it’s going to result into more energy, more focus, you’re going to get stuff done faster, and you’re going to have this super human feeling of, ‘Okay, I can do anything that is coming onto my plate.’” And when people start to sleep more, and actually not sacrifice their sleep anymore, you start to feel good, you start to have more energy, you start to have better focus.

Instead of focusing for 5 to 10 minutes at a time, you can now focus for 30 minutes, for 45 minutes, or even 60 minutes. And imagine what you can do in 60 minutes of just intense focus versus 6 minutes here, 5 minutes there, 10 minutes here, 15 minutes here, 3 minutes there. When you have uninterrupted time to focus, and you have the energy to focus as well, you can accomplish amazing things. And it really starts with a really good night of sleep.

And so, I recommend to everybody to have an evening routine and making sure that you sleep more than you’re currently sleeping. So, I always recommend that you probably want to add another hour or an hour and a half of sleep, which usually also means that you have to go to bed a little earlier too, oftentimes by an hour or an hour and a half.

And the best way to do that is by introducing, not a morning routine, but an evening routine, which is kind of the opposite of a morning routine, right? A morning routine, or a morning ritual as I like to call, is kind of getting you ready for the day and making sure you feel confident, you’re feeling energized and focused, and you’ve lots of clarity. The evening routine, or evening ritual as I like to say, is the opposite. It kind of allows you to wind down and get ready for a really good night of sleep.

And so, one of the things I always recommend people do is that they journal at the end of the day because it allows you to clear your thoughts. And the worst feeling in the world is when you go to bed and you’re having all these lingering thoughts in your head, “Oh, did I schedule this call with this person? Oh, I need to do that tomorrow. I want to make sure that I paid my credit card bill.” And when you have all these lingering thoughts in your head, it’s just so difficult to sleep and fall asleep, which is kind of the bedrock for productivity. So, one of the things that I think is just so underrated is addressing the root cause which, for most people, is just not enough sleep.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. The root cause of distraction or the inability to resist distraction is you haven’t slept enough.

Thanh Pham
Yes. For a lot of people, and this sounds so counterintuitive, and I always get that reaction. But if you have more energy, it’s so much easier to kind of like address distractions if they come your way because now you have the energy to focus. And you don’t feel like you have to distract yourself from something that maybe looks a little bit more exciting because you can now focus on something that’s actually in front of you.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. So, I’m a huge believer in sleep as well. So, other than just making the time and following the basic sleep hygiene practices associated with winding down and dark and quiet and cool temperature, anything else you recommend to just the make the most of your sleep time?

Thanh Pham
If you want to take it up a notch, I would say it’s a safe practice to have magnesium as a supplement to add to your day-to-day supplement list if you have that. Magnesium is a natural relaxer for our body. It’s a natural compound mineral that we have in our foods that we can ingest. So, there’s a calm supplement out there that people really like.

I recently started using, myself, upgraded formulas which has a more effective dose of magnesium that you can intake. And if you just take like 5 mg of that before you go to bed, you’ll just sleep so much more soundly. So, that’s an easy way to do that. The other thing is no electronics, or no phone, no iPad, no TV about an hour, an hour and a half before you go to sleep.

The other thing I would recommend is blue-blocking glasses. You’ve probably seen them. If you have a friend who’s a biohacker, you’ve probably seen them. They sometimes look kind of funny and weird because they have orange tints. But if you just wear them at home for your own comfort, they’re really helpful. I oftentimes go to movies at night wearing them, and by the time I come home, I’m not wired at all. I feel really relaxed and then I can just go to bed right away. So, those are three things I would recommend.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Thank you. I also want to get your quick take on email. Your one tip you shared previously was don’t be in your email client all day, it’ll distract you and sub-optimize your time. Any other thoughts on how do we manage that effectively?

Thanh Pham
One of my favorite tips for email is the two-minute rule. So, it’s kind of borrowed from the idea of GTD. When you have a task in front of you, you have to decide within two minutes what you’re going to do with that. And same thing with email. I find that if you applied the two-minute rule to every email that you process, you’ll go through email a lot quicker.

So, the basic question is, “Okay, can I address this in two minutes or less?” If the answer is yes, just reply to the email right away and deal with it. If not, it takes more than two minutes, then add it to your to-do list. And from there you can go through your inbox very quickly. And then also, because you’re building your to-do list based on your email that way, now you can prioritize which email or which tasks you want to address based on whatever priorities you have set for yourself and what your goals are.

Because if you start using email as your to-do list, it’s so easy to get lost, it’s so easy to get distracted, and that’s why I always tell people, like, “Hey, move that stuff over from your email inbox to a to-do list, and then close your email client because from there you can then prioritize what you need to do.”

Pete Mockaitis
Lovely. Well, Thanh, anything else you want to make sure to mention before we hear about a couple of your favorite things?

Thanh Pham
Oh, when it comes to email, there’s a couple of tools that I always recommend. One of the best things you can also do is learn keyboard shortcuts. So, for example, if you use Gmail, one of my favorite keyboard shortcuts is E, which is archiving. Another one, a really simple one is C which is composing an email. Then we have another one R, which is replying to an email. If you just learn these three keyboard shortcuts, you’ll just be able to navigate so much quicker through your inbox as well. If you use Outlook, learn the keyboard shortcuts for Outlook. And you just need to know two or three, and you’ll see how fast you can go through your inbox.

Pete Mockaitis
Awesome. Now, can you share with us a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?

Thanh Pham
Ooh, I have a lot of favorite quotes. I tend to write a lot of them in my journal, but the one that has been most recent for me is, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” That’s, I believe, an African proverb. Especially when it comes to teamwork, I think this is really important because oftentimes, as individuals, yes, we can do things ourselves and do stuff, but if we actually want to accomplish big things in life, we often want to do that with other people, whether it’s your significant other, whether it’s a coworker, or within a team. Whenever you try to do things together, one plus one just becomes three in my experience. And so, that’s one quote that has really stood out to me recently.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with your audience; they sort of quote it back to you often?

Thanh Pham
I always tell people, “Do the hardest things first in the morning.” So, whenever you start your day, we call that eating your frog. It comes from the idea of whenever you eat a live frog in the morning, you can go on with the rest of your day knowing that that’s probably the worst thing that happened that day, right? So, it’s a Brian Tracy thing, and I want to give full credit to him for not only writing the book titled Eat Your Frog, or, Eat That Frog. But it’s just the idea of just, “Hey, if you have so many things to do, just do the hardest thing first thing in the morning because once you get that out of the way, you have a sense of confidence, you have this momentum on your side, and everything else on your to-do list is really not that scary. It’s actually relatively easy to do.”

So, most of us, when we start implementing this, we just get the sense of like, “Oh, man, I can do anything now.” And this is something that people just keep repeating back to me because I always talk about this strategy, and it’s just a way of living, and I love that you mentioned that as well for yourself because it’s just so effective.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Thanh Pham
Just go to AsianEfficiency.com, this is the blog. You can subscribe to our newsletter there. And we also have a podcast called The Productivity Show, so just find us in iTunes. And we have a weekly episode coming up where we just share productivity tips.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Thanh Pham
Just continue to listen to Pete and his guests. I think this is amazing podcast. And if you want more productivity tips, then you’ll know where to find us as well.

Pete Mockaitis
Thanh, thank you. This has been a lot of fun. I wish you lots of luck in all the ways you’re rocking Asian Efficiency.

Thanh Pham
Thank you so much, Pete.

483: How to Take Control of Your Attention with Nir Eyal

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Nir Eyal says: "It's not good enough to know what we should do... It's also about knowing what we should not do."

Nir Eyal identifies the surprising reason why we get distracted and how you can overcome it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Why mainstream productivity advice doesn’t work
  2. The four steps to becoming indistractable
  3. The real motivation for all human behavior

About Nir

Nir Eyal writes, consults, and teaches about the intersection of psychology, technology, and business. The M.I.T. Technology Review dubbed Nir, “The Prophet of Habit-Forming Technology.” Nir founded two tech companies since 2003 and has taught at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. He is the author of the bestselling book, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming ProductsIn addition to blogging at NirAndFar.com, Nir’s writing has been featured in The Harvard Business ReviewTechCrunch, and Psychology TodayNir is also an active investor in habit-forming technologies. Some of his past investments include: Refresh.io (acquired by LinkedIn), Worklife (acquired by Cisco), EventbriteAnchor.fm, and many others. Nir attended The Stanford Graduate School of Business and Emory University.

Resources mentioned in the show:

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Nir Eyal Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Nir, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Nir Eyal
It is so good to be back. Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I think we’ll have a lot of fun talking here. It’s funny, your book wasn’t even close to out but we were already talking about it last time. So, I’m excited to dig into greater detail here.

Nir Eyal
Yeah, me, too. Well, what can I tell you? We got a lot to talk about since last time.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, we do. But, first, I need to at least touch upon your habit of running barefoot in New York City. What is this? Isn’t that gross and dangerous?

Nir Eyal
Oh, yeah. This is weird, right? Let’s see, so a few years ago. First of all, I want you to know, I have, for almost my entire life, hated physical activity of any sort, shape, or form.

And then I read this book called Born to Run which is this book that explores or has this hypothesis that. The way we actually kill the animals wasn’t by arrows and spears at first. It was that we evolved the ability to run after our prey. And, in fact, our people in Africa still, to this day, who do what’s called subsistence hunting, they run down animals, and that’s their dinner.

A long way of saying, I just thought that was super cool, and I thought, “Well, if that’s how we were born to run, right, to borrow from the title of this book, well, maybe I’ll give it a shot.” And part of the reason I always hated running was that I constantly had knee pain and joint pain and shin splints, and I decided to, first, use minimalist shoes, very, very soft, very, very small-soled shoes. And then I actually moved to barefoot-barefoot, like nothing on my feet, and this is the first time that I have run without pain. I still get winded, right? I run for a long time, or I run fast, but I don’t have anymore muscular pain or joint pain.

And so, I’ve been doing it for about four years now. And I moved to New York City a few years ago, and I kept it up around here, believe it not. I get a lot of funny stares and funny looks but, thankfully, haven’t had any injuries.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s great. I guess I’m just imagining, no offense to New York, coming from Chicago, like a broken 40 bottles on the sidewalk, and “Argh.”

Nir Eyal
You know, what we’ve done here. You know, Indistractable, my new book, has so many pearls of wisdom. Now that people have heard this crazy thing I just told you, they’re not going to listen to anything else I say.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, credibility shot.

Nir Eyal
Exactly. This is not what the book is about at all. But I think if there’s one thread that does run through a lot of different things I do, is that I love to challenge convention, right? I love to overturn apple carts. And in an age where, you know, the entire time I’ve grown up, I’ve always been told that we need lots of cushion beneath our feet in order to protect us and help us run faster. And Airs and Reeboks, they all tell us that that’s what’s needed.

And so, I just really love this way that actually turns out that these thick-soled shoes may actually be part of the problem for a lot of runners, not for everyone, right? If you like to run and you like a lot of cushion and you’re not having any pain or discomfort, well, then good on you. Keep doing it. But, for me, it wasn’t working and I tried something else. And, in my case, it was running shoeless.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Nir Eyal
And, by the way, I don’t run everywhere in New York. Like, there are paths that you can run on where it’s relatively clean and relatively safe.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. So, you’ve never had a nasty shard of anything get wedged into your foot and cause it to bleed?

Nir Eyal
Don’t jinx me, bro. But so far so good. No, I’ve never had anything. Because what’s interesting about the way we run is that if you run correctly, you should land very softly on the ground.

When you run without shoes, you actually can’t run incorrectly. It hurts. You feel it immediately. You get this feedback right away. And so, I don’t land very hard on the ground. It’s amazing how our feet have evolved to prevent injury.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, I’m satisfied.

Nir Eyal
Take my word for it. You don’t have to do it. It’s okay.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Well, so you’ve been putting a lot of time in research into this notion of becoming indistractable. Can you share with us kind of why did this become a passion point for you and you’ve chosen to invest your energies here?

Nir Eyal
Yeah, so I wrote Hooked about five years ago, this book which was subtitled “How to Build Habit-Forming Products.” And that book is really about this question that I had at the time of, “How do we get people to use our products and services?” So many products and services out there are wonderful, they’re great, they improve people’s lives, if they would only use them.

And so, I wanted to understand the psychology behind how some of the world’s most habit-forming products do what they do, right? How do companies like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and WhatsApp and Snapchat and Slack, how are they designed to get us to keep coming back? And wouldn’t it be great if we could take that same secret sauce and apply it to all sorts of products and services, right, to build healthy habits?

And so, that’s what Hooked was all about. I’ve looked for this book, I couldn’t find it, so I decided to write it myself. I taught for many years at Stanford at the Graduate School of Business, and at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, and that was the subject of my first book.

Now, shortly after that book was written, about a year and a half, two years after that book was written, I found that my behavior was changing in ways I didn’t always like, to be honest with you. I remember this one occasion, I was sitting with my daughter, and we had this afternoon together. And we had this book of activities that daddies and daughters could do together. And one of the activities was to ask each other this question, and I’ll never forget the question. The question was, “If you could have any superpower, what superpower would you want?”

And I remember the question but I don’t remember her answer because when she was telling me the answer to this question, I was busy on my phone. I was checking some bit of internet nonsense. And so, that’s when I realized, “Wait a minute, I wrote the book on how to build habit-forming technology, I understand the guts of how these companies do what they do, I teach companies how to build healthy habits, and yet, here I am, getting unhealthfully hooked myself.”

And so, I thought, “Wow, if I’m struggling with this, then I bet a lot of other people are struggling with this as well.” And this was several years ago. But, now, we definitely see that. At the time when I wrote Hooked I had to convince people that Facebook and Slack and WhatsApp and Instagram and all these products didn’t just get lucky, that, in fact, they were designed with consumer psychology in mind, that consumer psychology really matters, that these people understand what makes you click and what makes you tick better than you understand yourself.

Today, I don’t have to sell that anymore. People know this is true and, if anything, the problem is we overuse these technologies. So, that’s when I decided, as I do in the case of every time I have an idea for a book, I read everything I could possibly find on the topic of distraction, of psychology, of addiction. And what every other book said, the conventional wisdom, what we all hear today is that technology is the problem, that these companies are addicting us, that it’s melting our brain, that it’s hijacking us.

And the more I dove into that psychology, I realized it wasn’t actually true. Not only that, not only was it not true, it didn’t work, right? They all basically say the same thing. They say, like, basically the problem is technology, right? Cut it out of your life, do a digital detox, go on a 30-day whatever retreat, just get it out of your life, and that’ll solve the problem.

So, I did that. I followed the advice. I did what they told me, I went on a digital detox, I bought a feature phone that didn’t have any apps on it, I bought a word processor on eBay from the 1990s, they don’t even make them anymore, but has no internet connection, and that’s what I used to do my writing, and it didn’t work because I still got distracted.

I would start to write, and writing is really hard for me, it doesn’t come naturally, and I would say, “Ah, this is really hard. Maybe I’ll just read this book on the bookcase for a few minutes because that’s kind of related to my work,” or, “My desk needs organizing,” or, “I should probably take out the trash.” And I found myself constantly getting distracted, and that’s a big problem because, the fact is, if you want to do creative, in my field it’s writing, but no matter what creative endeavor you want to do, without focus, without doing what it is you decide you’re going to do, nothing gets done, right? All of your amazing genius ideas stays stuck in your head. You have to produce.

And this idea that the technology was the problem, one, it didn’t work, two, it’s super impractical because my audience and I live online, right? I need these tools to reach people who might be interested and who could be helped by the work I’m doing. So, all in all, I just was really disappointed with the current solutions so I started diving to the psychology of, “Why do we get distracted in the first place?’ I mean, to me, that’s such a fascinating question.

Aristotle and Socrates had this question 2500 years ago, this question of akrasia, they called it, this tendency to do things against our better interest. So, the question is, “Why is it that despite the fact that we know what to do, we don’t do the right thing?” We all know there’s tons of self-help books in the nutrition space, and they all basically say the same thing, right? Like, we know how to get healthy. Workplace productivity, we know how to be productive, just do the work, right? We know how to have better relationships. Be fully present with those you love. Why don’t we do it?

And so, that’s really the question I seek to answer in Indistractable, “Why don’t we do we say we’re going to do? And what would life be like if we were indistractable?”

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. That’s really juicy there. So, this is an ancient problem, the human being becoming distracted and pursuing things that are not in our best interest. So, the devices, I guess, Nir, you’re somewhat off the hook for addicting us all the more and destroying our lives. They are not 100% to blame and you’re sharing that is also, I guess, reduced as well. So, let’s hear it. What can be done with regard to this human tendency to defeat distractions, be they digital or otherwise?

Nir Eyal
Yeah. Well, I will tell you that in this day and age the technologies have gotten so good and so pervasive, as they have become more persuasive, that the world, if you don’t know these techniques, if you don’t become indistractable, they’ll get you. Not only that, they’ll get your work colleagues, they’ll get your kids. Like, the cost of living in an age where there is so many good things to explore, whether it’s online, whether it’s in social media, on YouTube, there’s so many interesting things to explore.

I don’t think it’s necessarily bad per se. it’s just that if you don’t have these techniques, it is easier than ever to succumb to distractions. So, it’s not your fault that these things exist. But here’s the sad reality. It is our responsibility. This stuff is not going away. And if you wait for legislators to do something about it, if you hold your breath waiting for the geniuses in Washington to fix the problem, you’re going to suffocate.

So, what I learned in this process is actually a very empowering and hopeful message, that we have more power than we know. That, in fact, by calling these things addictive, by thinking that they’re hijacking our brain, we are actually, ironically, making it so. It’s called learned helplessness. That when we say, “Oh, those algorithms are hijacking my brain and it’s addictive.” Especially when people talk about their kids, by the way, it’s fascinating, right? They’re absolutely convinced that there’s nothing they can do about it, that these kids are just addicted to these video games.

And, in fact, there’s been many studies done on people who are actually pathologically addicted to various substances like alcohol, like the various drugs, and it turns out, the number one determinant of whether someone recovers after rehab is not the level of physical dependency, it’s actually their belief in their own power to change.

And so, that’s really the message. If there’s one message of this book, it’s to look at the root causes of distraction and then do something about those root causes, not the proximate causes, starting with, and this is kind of, I’ll just name the four parts of the indistractable model, then we can dive deeper into the parts that interest you.

So, the indistractable model has these four parts. So, I want you to kind of picture in your mind here a number line, right? So, it extends left to right, it extends out from and into infinity, let’s say, so you have this horizontal line on one side, and on the right side, we have traction. Traction is any action that you take that draws you towards what you want in life, okay? The word traction actually comes from the Latin trahere which means to draw towards. So, things that you do, actions you take that move you towards what you want in life.

What’s the opposite of traction? Distraction. Right, the opposite of traction is distraction. Distraction is anything you do that moves you away from what you want in life, right? So, it’s anything you do unintentionally. So, the idea here is I’m not going to be the moral police and tell you video games are bad, but watching a sports match is somehow good, right? If it’s something that you want to do, whether it’s check YouTube, look at Reddit, watch sports games on TV, whatever it is you want to do, if you plan to do that activity, that quote “the time you plan to waste is not wasted time.” As long as you plan to do that, it’s traction.

If it takes you off track, right, if you’re with your daughter like I was, and I plan to spend time with her, and then I get distracted with my phone, well, that took me off track, it made me do something I didn’t want to do, so that’s distraction. Okay, so that’s traction and distraction.

Now, you’ve got this horizontal number line. Now, imagine two arrows pointing to the center of that number line, and these two arrows represent the things that either lead us to traction or distraction. They are two types of triggers. We have external triggers and we have internal triggers. External triggers are the things that prompt us to action in our environment that move us towards traction or distraction. So, the pings, the dings, the rings, anything that moves you to traction or distraction.

What also moves us to traction or distraction is the internal triggers which aren’t around us, they’re not in our environment. These are cues to action that start from within us. And what’s probably the biggest revelation that I had writing this book in the past five years was that distraction starts from within because all human behavior, everything we do is not motivated for the reason most people think. Most people think that motivation is about the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. This is called Freud’s Pleasure Principle. Not true. It turns out we are not motivated by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Neurologically speaking, it’s pain all the way down.

All human motivation is prompted by a desire to escape discomfort. It’s called the homeostatic response. So, physically, if you think about, okay, you feel cold, you put on a jacket. If you’re hot again, you go indoors, you feel hot, you take it off. If you’re hungry, you feel hunger pangs, you eat. When you’re stuffed, okay, that doesn’t feel good, you stop eating. So, those are physiological sensations, this is called the homeostatic response.

The same is true to psychological sensations, right? So, when you feel lonely, what do you do? You check Facebook or maybe Tinder. If you feel uncertain about something, before you scan your brain, what do you do? You check Google. If you are bored, what do you do? You check Reddit or news or YouTube or all these different products to satiate that uncomfortable emotional state. Even the pursuit of pleasure, in fact. Desire is uncomfortable, right? There’s a reason we say love hurts, right, because even wanting something is psychologically uncomfortable.

So, this means, if we believe that all behaviors is prompted by the desire to escape discomfort, that means that time management is pain management. And if we want to do the things we say we’re going to do, in business, in life, in our creative endeavors, we have to understand how to master these internal triggers. So, that’s the first step. Master the internal triggers. The second step is make time for traction. The third step is to hack back the external triggers. And the fourth step is to prevent distraction with pacts. So, that’s basically the outline of this book. Lots of tactics, that’s the overall strategy.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m fascinated by this principle here that it’s all pain avoidance and, I guess, you’re putting desire in the category of pain because I’m thinking, “Well, we certainly do things just for the fun of it.” Like, going on a honeymoon, I’m thinking.

When I went to Hawaii with my wife, it’s like there wasn’t something we were trying to escape. I mean, yeah, it was cold in Chicago but we were primarily thinking, “Oh, Hawaii. It’s going to be sunny and fun and enjoyable, and we’ll just get to be together.” So, I guess I’m just wrapping my brain around this notion that it is, in fact, all pain avoidance as opposed to pleasure seeking.

Nir Eyal
Yeah, so it’s a perfect example. So, why does the brain make us feel good, right? If the idea is that we have this pleasure response, we definitely have this response to pleasure. But, in fact, it turns out that we don’t do things because they feel good, we do things because they felt good in the past. We have a memory, an association that creates a desire, a longing, an uncomfortable itch that we seek to scratch because we have this memory of how it felt in the past. And that’s the driver. Even the pursuit of pleasure is itself an escape from discomfort.

Pete Mockaitis
Intriguing because I’ve had previous experiences of going on vacation or taking a break from responsibility and just hanging out with people and enjoy. Because I’m recalling that, I’m experiencing a desire, a form of discomfort, it’s like that is the thing I want, and I’m trying to escape that desire by doing it.

Nir Eyal
Right. Exactly. So, that longing, that wanting, that craving, is, in fact, what’s driving your behavior, driving your action.

Pete Mockaitis
And I’m intrigued now, I’ve heard in the realm of marketing, for example, that it seems like it’s almost always a better pathway in terms of effectiveness to deal in pain as opposed to pleasure. So, I’ve read that before, I don’t know. You do a lot of research. Can you lay it on me some studies that point to this truth?

Nir Eyal
Yes, so it’s not that we create pain, that’s sadistic, right? We would never want to create pain in our customers. It’s that the role of all products and services is to scratch some kind of itch, right? If the customer doesn’t have any kind of discomfort, there’s nothing for us to do. They don’t need anything. So, if you’re cool, if you’re chill, you don’t need anything.

So, for example, I was on a flight, this is a terrific example of the point. I was on a transcon flight and there was a guy in the aisle seat across from me, and he was clearly passed out, he had the pillow under his neck, he had a blanket on, he was sound asleep. And the flight attendant comes by, and she says to him, “Sir?” He’s sleeping, he can’t hear, so she says it again, she says it a little louder, she says, “Sir?” He doesn’t wake up. Finally, she says it even louder, she said, “Sir!” He wakes up, he’s like, “Whoa, whoa, what is it?” She says, “What would you like to drink, sir?”

And this is a perfect example of, “Would he want a drink?” “Yes, when he’s thirsty, not when he’s asleep.” And so, this is a terrific example of how, yes, we want things, right, he would want that water but only if he felt the internal trigger, only if he had that thirst, and that drove his desire to ask for the drink. When he’s sleeping, he didn’t feel the internal trigger. He didn’t feel that pain point, and so he didn’t need anything to help him out in that circumstance.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, so I’d love to talk about some of these internal triggers and pain management things on the inside because I think the external stuff, you’re right, I think we’ve hard a lot about, like put the technology away, avoid the temptations or distractions, lock it in another room or leave it in your bag or your car or whatnot. And I think I’m noticing more and more in my own life, it’s sort of like, “You know, if there is a bowl of chips in the kitchen, I will probably eat a chip. If there’s a bowl of grapes in the kitchen, I’ll probably eat a grape.”

And there you have it. It’s just that simple. It’s sort of like the environment itself is extending an invitation, “Would you care for a grape? Would you care for a chip?” It’s like, “Well, as a matter of fact, yes, I would. Thank you.”

Nir Eyal
If it’s right there, absolutely. So, this is called Lewin’s Equation, and we’ve known this for decades and decades now that our behavior is shaped by the person and their environment. So, the easier something is to do, the more likely people are to do it. So, if the external trigger is right there in front of you, it’s more likely that you will do that behavior. It doesn’t mean you’re powerless. And so, this is a super, super important point.

It is true that the world today is more potentially distracting than ever, and, by the way, it’s only going to get worse. If you think things are distracting now, wait a few years until we have virtual reality and God knows what else technologies we’re going to have. However, the antidote to impulsiveness is forethought.

So, as powerful as these technologies are, as powerful as these algorithms and these things that we’re carrying around with us everyday in our pockets, these minicomputers, as powerful as they are, we are more powerful if we plan ahead. If we don’t plan ahead, they’re going to get you, right? Just like that bowl of M&Ms, it’s going to be sitting there waiting for you. But we can plan ahead. We can take actions today that prevent us from getting distracted in the future.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, what are some of these most highly-leveraged actions we can take today to help ourselves in the future?

Nir Eyal
Yeah, so the first step has to be mastering these internal triggers that we talked about, that very first step. There’s only two ways to do that. We either fix the problem, we fix the source of the discomfort, or we learn methods to cope with the discomfort.
I give people lots of techniques that they can use that actually come from acceptance and commitment therapy, that come from a few other techniques. It really comes down to three things to master these internal triggers, to cope with these uncomfortable emotional states. It’s either reimagining the internal trigger, reimagining the task, or reimagining our temperament. And there’s all kinds of tools and techniques that we can use to do those three things.

One of the things we need to do, one of my favorite things that we need to remember, is not to believe these myths around our temperament. This is probably one of the most common self-defeating behaviors we see. You might’ve heard of this concept of ego depletion, this idea that your willpower is depleted, it’s kind of like a gas tank. This got me all the time. I used to come home from work, I’ve had a long day, I deserve to relax, so I switched on Netflix, and I’ve got no more willpower left, it’s been depleted so I’ll open up that pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.

And it turns out, this idea that willpower is a depletable resource got a lot of credibility at some point, that there was some studies done a while ago now, more than a decade ago, but it turns out it’s not true, that these studies did not replicate. This idea of ego depletion is simply not true except in one case. That one case is when you believe it is true. So, if you were the kind of person who believe that they were spent, that their willpower is a limited resource, you behaved accordingly.

So, one of these lessons around reimagining your temperament is to stop believing these myths that you have an addictive personality, or you have a short attention span, or that your willpower is depleted, unless of course you actually do have a pathology, which is the case for some people but of course not the majority of people. But these traits, these beliefs that we have, that our temperament is somehow making us do these things are really self-defeating. We have to reimagine our temperament. That’s just one technique among many, many, many others in the book around mastering these internal triggers.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, could you give me, perhaps, the most compelling study or evidence bit about willpower being depletable is a myth and, in fact, you can go on and on and on?

Nir Eyal
Right. So, the right way to look at it, so this is an idea that was proposed around it. If that’s the case, if willpower is not a depletable resource, then what is it? It turns out that willpower, and this was proposed by Michael Inzlicht. He said that willpower is simply an emotion. We wouldn’t say, “Oh, I was having a great time until I ran out of happy,” right? That’s ridiculous. So, we don’t run out of an emotion.

And so, similarly, that the antidote then is to not to give ourselves this excuse that we deserve a break, that we’ve run out of willpower, but rather that this is a passing feeling. And so, I give techniques in the book around how we can deal with these uncomfortable emotional states. Just like any internal trigger, we can use these techniques from acceptance and commitment therapy such as the 10-minute rule, which I use probably every single day.

The 10-minute rule says that when you’re about to give into something, right before whether it’s that piece of chocolate cake, or, “I’m just going to check out something on YouTube, or look at my email even though I’ve planned something else to do,” we give ourselves 10 minutes. Ten minutes to let ourselves feel that uncomfortable emotional state, try and get to the bottom of what’s creating that emotional state, boredom, loneliness, fatigue, uncertainty, whatever it might be. And then, in 10 minutes, if we still want that thing, we can give into it. So, that’s just one tactic among many.

In fact, I have people kind of track their distractions throughout the day so that they can figure out the three categories of, “Is it an external trigger that caused the distraction, an internal trigger that caused the distraction, or was it a planning problem?” The planning problems are the things that we didn’t properly plan for on our day. That’s probably one of the most common problems that I see these days, is that, in this day and age, if you don’t plan your time, someone else will.

And so, you cannot call something a distraction unless you know what it is distracting you from, right? Think about that for a minute. How can we call something a distraction if we didn’t plan something else to do with that time, if we didn’t plan the traction in our day? So, I actually have an online tool that I built specially for this, anybody can access it, it’s free, where you can go and actually plan a template for your ideal week.

Now, it doesn’t mean you’re going to follow it rigidly, and if you go off track, you’re going to beat yourself up. No, no, no, that’s not the answer. The idea is that you have a template that you can look at and say, “Okay, what did I plan to do with my time, even if it is going on YouTube or Reddit or whatever, what did I plan to do with my time? And if I did anything that’s not that, that’s a distraction.” But you can’t do that unless you make time for traction, unless you do what I call turning your values into time.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. So, we got the reimagining there with the willpower consideration. And how do we do the reimagining of trigger attacks?

Nir Eyal
Right. So, reimagining the trigger is all about changing our perception of that uncomfortable emotional state. And this comes back to self-talk. A lot of people, when they feel these uncomfortable emotional states, they’ve been conditioned, because of many of these distractions all around us, to impulsively jump to it. And the idea, instead, is to reimagine how we think about those internal triggers so that when we feel the uncomfortable state, we tell ourselves a different narrative. And people tend to fit into two different kinds of narratives. I call it the blamers or the shamers.

The blamers say, “Ah, it’s the distraction doing it to me. It’s the technology’s fault. It’s doing it to me.” The shamers say, “Oh, there’s something wrong with me. There’s something wrong about my temperament,” as we talked about earlier. And the answer is neither of those things. The answer is that it’s not about blaming or shaming. These are actions that we take and our actions can take, or can change, that is.

So, if we respond differently to these internal triggers, if we see them as, “Okay, this is difficult, this is boring, this is hard. I’m stressed right now, but that’s how we get better.” That’s my path to improving this skill, for example. It’s a much healthier way to look at it. And then reimagining the task, I draw from the work of Ian Bogost who’s done this amazing research around how we can make anything fun. And he actually hates, you know, we probably remember as a kid, the Mary Poppin’s method of putting a spoonful of sugar on stuff, and he says, “That’s actually terrible advice,” that we don’t want to layer…

Pete Mockaitis
Sugar is unhealthy.

Nir Eyal
Sugar is terrible enough. Right. Exactly. And it’s a purely extrinsic reward. And we know the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic rewards. When something is extrinsically pleasurable, we don’t stick with it for that long. We do it just for the reward. That’s the only reason we do it. So, when you pay people, for example, to draw a picture, if you pay them, they actually draw less creative art than if you say, “Hey, just do your best at drawing something creative,” because if they’re doing it for the extrinsic reward as opposed to the pleasure of doing something creative.

So, what Bogost suggests is to focus more intently on the task, add constraints to the task, so that is, in fact, the element of fun. And fun, ironically enough, doesn’t have to be enjoyable. Now that sounds weird, right? Isn’t fun supposed to be enjoyable? Well, not necessarily. We can use this idea of fun, focusing more intently on something, looking for the variability, what changes in the task. We can look for those elements to help us focus. And if we can focus on something, we can stick with it longer, we become better at it, and we do our best work.

Pete Mockaitis
And can you give us an example of how you would add some constraints or find the variability to make it more enjoyable?

Nir Eyal
Sure. So, for example, in my work, so as a writer, writing is really, really hard. I constantly feel this internal trigger of boredom, of stress, “Is what I’m doing good enough?” And so, the idea here is that I want to focus on the task more intently. So, what I do, whenever I feel myself feeling stressed about my work, I, instead, look for the variability. And this comes straight out of the techniques that many of these tech companies are using to keep us engaged, right? It’s called the variable reward. What makes a slot machine engaging, what makes television something that we can’t stop watching, is the variability, the uncertainty.

So, in my work, for example, when I find myself getting bored or stressed about the work I’m doing, I try and reassess, “What is the mystery here?” I try and look for the uncertainty, and I add in my own variable reward, my own intermittent reinforcement. So, what drives me to do my writing, in my case, but, of course, it can be different for anyone’s case, is the uncertainty, the mystery. So, you have to add some kind of challenge that you can put into the experience that makes it variable. The variability is what keeps us engaged.

Actually, this is interesting. It comes back full circle to where we started the conversation around my crazy barefoot running habit. So, it turns out that our brains are built to look for these variable rewards. If you can imagine, what kept our primal ancestors hunting, what kept them running and running and seeking was, in fact, the variability, right? Where was the animal going to go? How fast was it moving? That was all these variable elements that are core to our DNA that keeps us hunting, that keeps us searching. So, we can harness that primal instinct by looking for the variability where it may not, on the surface, exist.

Pete Mockaitis
And so, your running example, when you’re trying to add variable rewards for yourself, what are you choosing? You’re just looking for the mystery and so what else are you doing?

Nir Eyal
So, I’m looking for the mystery and focusing more intently on the task. So, it becomes about, “How can I answer this question? Where will this lead me?” You can also add various constraints. Bogost calls this a sandbox, so to speak, that, in fact, the worst thing a writer can look at, the worst thing an artist can see is a blank canvass, or a blank page. And so, what you want to do is to try and add constraints, a time constraint, for example, some kind of constraint around how you’re working to add that sandbox element to reimagine the task.

Pete Mockaitis
So, time is one. What would be some other constraints?

Nir Eyal
Yes, so output can be a constraint as well that you add, “How quickly can I do this task based on how much output is created?” All sorts of ways. So, Bogost talks about how cutting his grass is a great example that I talked to him about. Cutting your grass is not something that you would expect to be very entertaining, right? That’s something that typically people find it a chore. Well, he got super into cutting his grass. He learned about which type of seed grows best in his particular climate, and the different mechanisms of cutting the grass. It seems totally ridiculous at first, until you realize that people can focus intently on all kinds of crazy stuff. Right?

Think about that car buff that can’t stop obsessing and thinking about his cars, right? They’re totally into it, right, because they focus more intently on it. Think about the barista who’s crazy about coffee, and he wants to know every little detail. Think about the person who’s a knitter and loves and is totally engaged with all the variability and the intricacies of creating something. Now, for most of us, these specific tasks are work, but for these people, they’ve harnessed the power of reimagining the task so that it becomes play, it becomes fun.

Now, by the way, everything I’ve just told you is only one of four parts. We didn’t get to how to make time for traction, how to hack back the external triggers, and how to prevent distraction with pacts. So, there’s lots more in this book, there’s a lot that we didn’t get to yet.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, it’s intriguing to think that you can become fascinated by something that you previously were not fascinated by, and I guess you do so by focusing more intently and finding the mystery.

Nir Eyal
And it’s such a superpower. I mean, think about it, right? What if you could do that? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Like, what if you could make all sorts of tasks that are currently drudgery to you into something that actually holds your attention? To me, that’s just such a superpower as is becoming indistractable itself.

Pete Mockaitis
Right. And I guess it might help if you could maybe do a little bit of modeling of other people in terms of why is it you’re fascinated by knitting, and then they point out some things that you never noticed or thought of, and you go, “Oh, okay.” So, almost like you get a head start if you’re just really clueless about where to get going there.

Well, in our final minutes, I think there’s a couple things I need to cover. One, did you ever get the answer on your daughter’s preferred superpower?

Nir Eyal
Yeah. So, interestingly enough, I went back to her, as I was writing the book, and I actually was giving my first talk. The book wasn’t finished yet but I was asked to give a talk on what I’m working on these days so I decided to share some of the early findings from Indistractable. And I know my answer, my answer was, of course, I would want the superpower to become indistractable. I would want the power to always do what I say I’m going to do, to strive to have personal integrity. It doesn’t mean I’ll never get distracted. Being indistractable does not mean you never get distracted. It means you strive to do what you say you’re going to do.

But then I asked her, I sat down with her, and I said, “You know, I’m really sorry. I didn’t listen to what you said last time. I apologize. Can you tell me what your superpower would be because I’m going to give this talk and I’m really curious to hear what your answer would be?” And, honest to God, this is what she said, she said she would want the power to always be kind. That’s what she said. And, of course, I wiped my eyes, and I gave her a big hug because I was expecting her to say fly or be invisible, I don’t know, but she said to always be kind.

And I just thought that was so perfect because the fact is that being kind is not really a superpower, right? We all can be kind, can’t we, right? You don’t need to be born on some alien planet to have this power. Anybody can be kind. And the same goes for being indistractable. And that’s the message I really want people to hear with this book, is that when you understand the root causes of distraction, and you understand the techniques and strategies to manage distraction, anyone can have this superpower, anyone can become indistractable.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Thank you. Now, could you share with us a quote, something you find inspiring?

Nir Eyal
Here’s one of my favorite quotes, by William James, it’s, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.” And I think that’s a really fantastic quote because what I found in my years of researching the psychology of distraction is that understanding distraction is an underutilized trait, it’s an underutilized skill because it’s not good enough to just know what we should do, right? That’s not good enough, is to know what to do. It’s also about knowing what we should not do.

How do we keep ourselves from getting distracted? Because, at the end of the day, we all know, big picture, what we should do in our day, how to get fit, how to have a better relationship. Big picture, we know the answers. And, yet, we don’t do them. Why don’t we do these things? So, I think this is a great quote, “The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook,” what we shouldn’t do, what we should not get distracted from.

Pete Mockaitis
And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Nir Eyal
Yes, so I think the challenge that I would ask people to consider is, “What is taking you off track?” Maybe I can actually give your listeners a tool, a distraction tracker, that I would challenge them to simply keep track, without judging, without beating yourself up, with being kind to yourself the way you would be kind to a friend. What is it that is taking you off track in your day? When you plan to do one thing, what are those things that distract you?

And just keeping that log, just keeping that record, and understanding that there are only three types of things that can take you off track, either it was an external trigger, an internal trigger, or a planning problem can help you start to categorize, and then effectively manage these distractions in your life so that you can make sure that you can use these technologies to empower you as opposed to being a slave to them, for example.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, Nir, thank you. This is fun and I wish you all the luck in the world as you pursue your superpower here of perfect integrity.

Nir Eyal
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure.

461: Tactics for Boosting Productivity and Banishing Distraction with Erik Fisher

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Erik Fisher says: "You can't get everything done; not all the time, not every moment."

Erik Fisher shares tips and tricks to optimize your productivity without driving yourself crazy.

You’ll Learn:

  1. Tricks to reduce your smartphone dependency
  2. The small habits that create big results
  3. Why it’s okay to not get things done

About Erik 

Erik is a Productivity Author, Podcaster, Speaker, and Coach. He talks with real people who practically implement productivity strategies in their professional and personal lives. You’ll be refreshed and inspired after hearing how others fail and succeed at daily productivity and continue to lead successful and meaningful lives.

Resources mentioned in the show:

Thank you Sponsors!

Erik Fisher Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis
Erik, thanks so much for joining us here on the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Erik Fisher
You’re welcome. Thanks for having me.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m super excited to dig back into the goods. And I want to hear, you know, it’s been a couple years. What have you learned about productivity in that time? Or is there anything new you’d picked up or anything you decided you’ve abandoned, like, “Hey, on second thought, I don’t like that idea anymore”?

Erik Fisher
Oh, my gosh. Things change and yet, at the same as things are changing, they stay the same. One of the key things for me is, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but there’s a lot of people who’ve come out with, say, like, daily or weekly analog, meaning handwriting-type planners, you know, chucking the digital system, if you will. And, for the most part, I like that idea. I like working in analog. There’s something very satisfying to that.

A friend of mine, he’s like, “Hey, I have a digital planner and I use my Apple Pencil in it,” and I’m like, “Okay, cheater.” But, for the most part, I have still stayed digital in terms of my list and my projects and things like that. But I have gone to almost completely 100% paper books.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, interesting. So, no Kindles or e-books of any sort.

Erik Fisher
Now, I have the ability to do it and I will still look at articles. Like, I do have an iPad, the latest version, the 11-inch Pro, and I really like it. I use it for content consumption and I don’t turn it and use it like a laptop or anything like that. I like that it’s not a desktop or a laptop or a phone. And by leaning into using it that way as a tablet, a digital window interface, whatever, to all my documents and things like that, whether it’s work-related or consumption-related, reading articles. I lean heavily into that and then, by doing that, I feel like that ease of use, of using it as a multipurpose tool like that, I then don’t spend as much time on my phone. You know what I mean?

Because if we constantly have that thing on us with all that stuff with us at all times, we feel like we have to use it all the time. And I’ve been trying really hard to get my time spent on phone down because the majority of the time that I’m spending on it, I found, was very unintentional passive use that was just eating into my time.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, that’s intriguing right there. So, you’ve made a conscientious effort to reduce time on phone and you’ve seen some positive results in doing so. Could you maybe quantify that a little bit for us in terms of where were you before, and where are you now, and did you do anything else that made a real big difference in helping with that initiative?

Erik Fisher
Yeah, so a friend of mine also was noticing this and not only that, but having read Cal Newport’s most recent book that he came out with, Digital Minimalism, and talking with him for my show, we both said, “Hey, you know what, what if we went for like…?” So, the period of Lent comes up and we decided to say, “Well, what if we just…? Like, we can’t quit our phone and not have it on us, but what if we quit using our phone for every little thing, and just see what we can get away with?”

So, we sat down together and we started cataloging all the different apps. It was kind of a challenge between the two of us to see how many we could offload or delete, and what was the bare minimum of installed and active apps we could have on our phone, and how far we could get with doing that. And it was amazing because, after having done that –

I have an iPhone. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the iPhone’s ability to offload an app. It means that you can remove an app, the app will stay there and your credentials, and you’d be logged in and all that, but you have to click the download button again, and it then fills in the hollow shell of an app that is sitting there with all the content again. So, effectively, you can’t use it without re-downloading the app, which is like a safeguard or a boundary from you using the app again.

Pete Mockaitis
So, it sort of keep all the info that you’ve stored about your login and your historical data, but it’s not kind of taking up any space, and it’s a little harder to get to because you’ve got to spend that time to re-download it.

Erik Fisher
That’s exactly right. So, effectively, yes, the shell of the app is there, the inside of the app is not there except for, again, it maintains all the logins and things like that. So, we went through that and we checked in with each other about three days in, and we said, “How much time are you using it?” I was like not even carrying my phone with me at that point. I have my Apple Watch on me, and I would respond to a text through that, and phone calls, I would still do those. Are people still doing phone calls? Yes, they do.

Pete Mockaitis
Or text me first.

Erik Fisher
Yeah, exactly. And I just noticed that suddenly I wasn’t reaching for it every 5 to 10 minutes to check something or look something up, etc. And that’s not to say I wasn’t allowed to look something up somewhere, like on a desktop, or even on my iPad, but I wasn’t allowed to do it on my phone. And by breaking the phone being on me and ever-present and always able to be dove into as this dark pool of information that I could always access—you just don’t understand!

Like, when you have that on you at all times and you can always jump in, then you constantly will. And because you constantly will, then you will even when you do or don’t want to. And so, it’s really about cutting way back to the point where, then, it’s almost like, think of it as a digital diet metaphor for a physical diet. It’s like you can enjoy the stuff that is bad for you on occasion as long as you’re not eating it constantly all day every day, which is what we are doing digitally.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, well-said. I like that. And what was so cool is you made it sort of like a challenge and you had some accountability there, a buddy, and you sort of reframed, I guess, what triggers your reward centers in your brain. It’s not like, “I am so powerful because I have so many apps, I can do anything.” But rather it’s like, “All right, let’s just see how disciplined I can be and how winning is now reducing apps instead of having more apps and feeling powerful as a result of having those apps.”

Erik Fisher
Yes, exactly. And then, of course, the time period was over when we could add apps back on. And, honestly, it was like, “Well, wait a second, I just never came back.” There were months later where I would suddenly be looking for an app on my phone, I’m like, “Wait. Didn’t I have that app?” And I realize I had never put it back on, and it had been months since I’d last used it, so why was it on there? “Oh, just in case.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah. And that slows you down too. Like, the actual, I don’t know a ton about how all this hardware devices worked. But it seems like in my experience, generally speaking, the more stuff you have installed, the slower things run. Is that fair to say for the phone as well, the number of apps?

Erik Fisher
Potentially. I think Apple would say, “No, no, there’s nothing different with it. Buy the biggest one and install as many apps as you want. There’s an app for everything.” I don’t know. I would say here’s the thing, that means you have subconsciously maybe a need to organize all those apps in different places so you’d know where they are and have the ability to use them quickly. So, in other words, it’s digital clutter on the phone that you then have to deal with, which is also taking up time, mental RAM.

So, all in all, I came out the other end and I started using my phone a whole lot less. And, even to this day, I use it more but I think I cut way back. Again, I need to do a revisit, not maybe as drastic or strategic. But, again, one of the things that I was doing was there were certain apps, like the weather app, where I realized, “You know what, I can offload it on my phone but I can literally lift my wrist on my Watch and the weather is right there.”

And so, it’s different. It’s a different feeling. In other words, it’s a different – what’s the best way to put it? It’s a different meeting of a need. In other words, that’s the thing, I think, I’m trying to get at here, is you have to be careful about how you’re meeting certain needs because, then, you start to rationalize everything as a need.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, yeah, it feels that was a big lesson that could be applied to a lot of things.

Erik Fisher
Yeah. So, you can rationalize doing your email on your phone. And some people were like, “Wait, what’s wrong with that?” And I’m like, “Dude, you have no idea how doing email on your phone can become this thing where you’re always doing email on your phone and then switching over to, “Oh you’re texting, switching over to listening to a podcast, switching over to…” Do you see what I’m saying? Like, switching over, switching over. Like, you are sitting there, hunched over with a horrible posture, and/or walking and talking, and doing something. You are basically tricking yourself with that phone into thinking you can multitask. And, again, you can. You’re just task-switching and you’re bifurcating and fragmenting your attention.

And, actually, that was the biggest thing right there was just this calm sense of, “I don’t have to reach for anything on that phone because there’s nothing there I am missing out on at this moment,” unless a rant, of course.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s beautiful in terms of describing that feeling and transformation and how that unfolds, so that’s cool. Well, hey, that’s what you’ve learned recently, and I appreciate you sharing it. Last time, we talked a lot about energy management being key to productivity, and so I want to cover some other pieces of productivity goodies from you this time.

I did a big listener survey, and a lot of folks were bringing up distractions, whether that’s internally from you’re tempted to go do email, or check your phone, or whatever, or externally, in terms of folks dropping by your desk, saying, “Hey, Erik, you got a minute?” or whatever. So, I’d love to get your take in terms of what have you found, in your own experience and from interviewing so many people, are really the best practices for maintaining clarity and focus?

Erik Fisher
So, I’ll refer you back to what we just talked as being a huge factor in that, first and foremost.

Pete Mockaitis
Just managing that phone, yeah.

Erik Fisher
Managing the phone and as well as what the phone is doing to you. Because if you feel like you need to reach for your phone when you’re sitting at your desk constantly, then you are effectively training yourself that it is okay to pick it up over and over and over and interrupt yourself, let alone weaken your ability to deal with any of the other stuff that are thrown at you from external.

Pete Mockaitis
Well-said. So, you’re actually harming yourself, you’re weakening your capacity to resist distraction because you are continually giving in.

Erik Fisher
That’s exactly right. Like, if at any moment you ever feel slightly bored—like my kids are saying—or hungry, or whatever, and you decide to go do something mindless, or go walk into the kitchen and open the refrigerator, it’s like opening the refrigerator door. Like, if you train yourself that that’s okay versus having something prepared that you know is your “snack for the day,” then there you go, then you’re going to go pull out, I don’t know, fill in blank here, of what you should not be having as a snack, you know?

So, the more you train yourself to go the opposite direction or the way you should go in terms of your habits, you just find it easy to get distracted. So, first and foremost, that’s number one, with the phone, because it’s tied in to that. Then, number two, in terms of distractions, gosh, there’s a couple of different things that I have found that really, really helped. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned the system, the audio system that I use, last time, that helps with eliminating distractions.

Pete Mockaitis
Is it Focus At Will?

Erik Fisher
It is Focus At Will. Well, I have changed.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. There we go.

Erik Fisher
Now, don’t get me wrong. I have a lifetime membership to Focus At Will but I’m not using it. I found one that I like better and it’s because it does multiple things. It’s not just focusing yourself. It has to do with brainwaves and the sound of the “music” or the—

Pete Mockaitis
You quote music. Strong praise, right?

Erik Fisher
Well, that’s the thing. Yeah, because technically it’s not music. It’s a—

Pete Mockaitis
Sound.

Erik Fisher
–Composition. Right. And so that’s the thing. But, that said, it’s still you don’t get into it like, “Oh, man, I love this song,” kind of moment because of listening to it. And if you did, then it wouldn’t be working because it would be distracting you because you’d be like, “Oh, man, I love this song.” It’s called Brain.fm.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Erik Fisher
It can do all of those stuff we talked about the Focus At Will can do. It eliminates the blinders, sorry, it puts up the blinders so your flight and fight mechanism kind of gets lulled into sleep. Essentially, it’s backed by science. It gets you to a place where your brainwaves are in position to hold focus stronger and longer when you’re doing work. And not only that though, it can also be used for meditation, or calming yourself down, or even sleep, so you can listen to it, take a nap and get a better sleep/nap by using it.

And by having that extra stuff and having it, again, I’m not talking bad about Focus At Will, but Brain.fm, which is leaps and bounds ahead of them when I found them almost a year ago, that I signed up immediately. And, in fact, they gave me like codes, not a code but a link, to let people get like 20% off for their whole first year, and people have been loving jumping on it.

Pete Mockaitis
Are you allowed to, are you able to share this in a public forum?

Erik Fisher
Yes, I can.

Pete Mockaitis
You can’t do this to us, Erik.

Erik Fisher
I gave it a pretty link so that it would be easier for people. So, it’s BeyondTheToDoList.com/brainfm.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Cool. Well, that’s intriguing. I mean, I love…well.

Erik Fisher
And you’ve used Focus At Will before.

Pete Mockaitis
I have used it and I appreciated what they had, but I also had kind of found a focus playlist I created, and I thought, you know, in a way it was almost because my focus playlist had gotten so many kind of repetitions of, “Oh, hey, it’s time to focus.” I listen to the focus music and I focus, that it’s kind of like ritualized and accelerated the process of having sound focus me. So, that’s kind of why, in my particular instance, the Focus At Will almost had enough hill battle against an incumbent. But what you’re saying here is, “Hey, Brain.fm does more than just that.”

Well, if we’re talking about me for a second with rituals and focus, like I enjoy, because I’ve got two kids under two, and I’ve got a home office in an enclosed porch, so I upgraded it to get a real nice sound-blocking door, but sometimes it doesn’t block enough sound. So, I’d like to put in earplugs, plus Bose noise-cancelling headphone, plus either the focus playlist, or we had a previous guest who talked about, she listens to Star Trek: The Next Generation engine idling noise as white noise.

Erik Fisher
Beautiful.

Pete Mockaitis
So, I found that and I use that sometimes. And so, that’s been the groove so far. But I’m intrigued by Brain.fm for that context as well as, hey, the power napping and more.

Erik Fisher
Yeah. So, I can tell you, one thing about the napping, as well as even the overnight sleep, which that’s a little bit tricky to do but I figured that out. Basically, you put it on as an app, and then it allows you to download an evening of Brain.fm sleep alpha wave patterns. Oh, I know where I was going. I was like, “Where was I going with this?”

When I talked to the guy that’s the head of it on my show, I told him, “I go to sleep listening to music, always have, since about junior high.” And I said, “It helps me fall asleep faster. Now why is this different?” And he says, “Well, number one, you listening to music as you go to sleep is a ritual, so it’s triggering your brain as you lay down in bed that it’s time to go to bed. And so, you’re still going to find that this has that power to it because you’re still going kind of through the ritual.”

However, the difference between Brain.fm and listening to regular music is that this is going to get your brainwaves into where you want them to go, which is deeper sleep, faster, and then keep them there because of the way that, again, I’ll use the word music, the way that it plays and it works and it keeps you calm and all that.

Now, the other thing that I have found is me, putting on my Bose noise-cancelling headphones, even if no one’s home, and turning it to the meditation or the calming setting, and doing 15 minutes of even if I’m just sitting in my desk, at my desk, in my desk chair, closed eyes or not, and just kind of breathing, “it gets you there faster” in terms of calming down and taking a break, and being able to then jump back from that more refreshed.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool.

Erik Fisher
So, there you go. So, yeah, again, that link is BeyondTheToDoList.com/brainfm. They gave me that link and said, “Hey, if your listeners ever want to listen, try it out, they can try it out for free.” And if they sign up, which it’s not expensive.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I thought it would be more but I clicked pricing, I always make a guess before I actually click pricing, and it was well below my guess.

Erik Fisher
Brain.fm is cheaper than the one that I was using that I have for lifetime anyway, which is Focus At Will. Brain.fm is cheaper, and I was just like, “Oh, gosh, this is a no-brainer.” But you can get 20% a year with them, which is great.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, very cool. All right. Boy, you’re delivering the goods. So, we’re going to talk about specific means by which you are maintaining clarity and focus. We talked about the breaking of habits with the phone and the reduction of apps and such. We got the Brain.fm. Any other biggies?

Erik Fisher
Let’s see here. So, I have one other one that’s a secret weapon.

Pete Mockaitis
I’d like if you disclose.

Erik Fisher
I will. I don’t know if you’ve ever talked with Jaime Masters before.

Pete Mockaitis
I know the name and the face but we’ve never talked.

Erik Fisher
So, she was on my show again recently. She and I did not plan on talking about this, but she shared this with me. She was doing these group mastermind things where she’d get people to come to like a big, a giant Airbnb somewhere, all these different leadership people and whatever. And they’d do these surveys afterwards, and people would ask them, she would ask the people, sorry, “What were the things that stood to you the most?” And she, embarrassingly, shared with me that the thing they were talking to her about was they would say, “Jaime’s drugs.” And she was like, “What? What are you talking about?” And she says, well, because she would bring something called nootropics with her.

Pete Mockaitis
Yes.

Erik Fisher
So, have you heard what this word is?

Pete Mockaitis
I’ve heard of nootropics. I’ve been a little spooked to ingest them myself.

Erik Fisher
Yes. So, here’s the deal, she had no idea that I had already tried one, yeah. And what I did was, basically, it’s called Alpha BRAIN. And she was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s one of the best ones.” And she said, “Here’s the thing, on Amazon you can go to the reviews, and it’s either, ‘This was amazing. It worked amazing for me,’ or, ‘This did nothing for me,’ and it’s really based upon who you are and your brain chemistry and all that kind of stuff.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yes, they got even three stars out of over a thousand reviews. Lovers and haters.

Erik Fisher
Yeah. And so, she said, “Here’s the thing, the issue with that one is that it works great for some people and does nothing for others, and it’s not inexpensive to get a hold of it, to start with, and try out and everything.” I said, “Well, hold up. They actually sent me some for free to try.” And then when it worked, because it did, and I’ll explain what it felt like in a second. She said, “Oh, that’s awesome.” And I said, “Yeah, I even wrote the guy back and said, ‘Hey, could I have a little bit more?’” in true drug, you know, the first one is free, so, “Could I have some more?”

And, anyways, what it came down to they had actually realized that if they could get it in the hands of the people to try out cheap, then people would actually notice that it worked or not for them and then order more. And so, basically, I have a deal on this one too where people can get it. They can get a bottle of it with like 14 pills of it, and even just taking one a day, or even two a day, is enough to see if it’s going to affect you at all, and you pay like five bucks for the shipping and that’s it.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, so I’m intrigued. And I guess what’s kind of kept me out of this is like, “Is it addictive? Is it dangerous? Is it, you know?” And it’s like, well.

Erik Fisher
No and no.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay.

Erik Fisher
Here’s how I’ll explain it. So, I was concerned with it. Let me first say this, before they ever approached me, and before Jaime and I ever had talked about it, months ago I saw in an Instagram story Michael Hyatt holding the bottle and saying he was taking it and loving it.

Pete Mockaitis
There’s something about Michael Hyatt, he’s such a standup guy. It’s like, “If Michael Hyatt takes this, it must not be dirty.”

Erik Fisher
Exactly my take too. And I love him and so I took a screenshot of it and just forgot about it. And then months later, it kind of bubbled back up into my head, and I was like, “Yeah, I should probably check that out.” I think it was only a matter of a few weeks later, somehow. I assumed maybe they found out by searching through the photos on my phone that I had looked at it or something, I don’t know. That’s when they sent it to me.

So, my predisposition to it was Michael Hyatt, and he kind of clears the path for me on a lot of things, to be honest. And so, I took two of them. There was like 14 of them in the small bottle and I took two of them on a Thursday, or it was a Tuesday. And so, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of a very tough week, I was taking two of them in the morning, honestly, just without even thinking about it. And then I just never gave it any thought.

But then I realized come Thursday later afternoon, and then even Friday morning again, it occurred to me, “Do you realize you haven’t felt like you needed to like crash and take a nap, or have two or three extra cups of coffee these past few days? But you also don’t feel like you are wired and jittery and whatever like you would’ve had if you’d taken those cups of coffee, and it’s just not as much of an effort to like, focus?” And so, to myself, I said, “Yes, you’re right, I have seen that. I have noticed that.”

And that’s exactly what it was. It wasn’t some kind of, “Oh, my gosh, I drank five energy Red Bulls or something.” It was like—oh, this is the best way to put it. You know how if you’ve ever lost any significant amount of weight, you don’t suddenly feel, but over time, you feel like you have so much more energy. It’s kind of the equivalency of that with your brain, but after having lost like 10 or 20 pounds, your brain just feels like it’s not weighed down as much.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, that’s intriguing.

Erik Fisher
That’s what it felt like. That’s what it feels like. And so, once they said, “Hey, here’s this code in case anybody is interested. They can grab a bottle for free. They just pay shipping,” I told two of my friends right away. I said, “Hey, not kidding you, I’ve tried this. Check out this page. If you’re interested, there you go.”

And one of them was like, “Oh, my gosh, I’m now taking one in the morning and one in the afternoon.” And he then said—and he loves coffee, by the way so he’s still having it—but he found that he was able to get so much more done over the course of the week than he was previously up to that point. So, for him it worked. For the other one, it actually didn’t. It didn’t really do much. So, that was actually interesting to me to find out.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I’m encouraged to hear that it hasn’t produced any dangers and it hasn’t produced any addiction.

Erik Fisher
No, because there are days I don’t take it.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that’s nifty. Well, hey, everyone be safe and do your research, but I’m taking a gander at it. I don’t see anything terrifying on the Amazon page. So, yeah, what is this link?

Erik Fisher
Oh, yes. Sorry, I didn’t even think to give you that. so, again, I made it easy, it’s BeyondTheToDoList.com/alphabrain.

Pete Mockaitis
All right.

Erik Fisher
So, there you go. Yeah, you can get it or not, and it’s cheap. You just pay like five bucks. Basically, think of it this way, one cup of coffee at a Starbucks and you might get, cost-wise, and you can see if this works for you. And if it does, again, you can kind of low-key take it, try it, whatever. And if it does something, great. For me and for some other people out there, it does a lot of good.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. Cool. So, we got the nootropics, and we got the phone discipline, we got Brain.fm. Any other things that have been really key for you when it comes to keeping the clarity and focus on track?

Erik Fisher
So, this is the other big thing, and this is actually huge for me. And, again, this is another thing that I kind of was a believer in, but not a stickler about to a certain extent until I talked with Michael Hyatt about it, and it’s sleep and napping.

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I’m a firm advocate of that and I think we got that point covered. We’ll just kind of add one more check mark of support from Erik Fisher on this one.

Erik Fisher
I think you’re there. And, actually, I track it. Like, I wear my Apple Watch at night to track my sleep, and I just know weeks and months where I’m in a better sleep groove, I am struggling less throughout the day. And, again, to do back to the Brain.fm thing, like I, literally, was able to see like, funny, night and day difference when it came to getting more rest in my day because it tracks even those naps, my app does. So, the more sleep I was getting, the more awake I was during the day, the better off I was. So, there you go.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s great. That’s great. Well, I guess I think sleeping and napping is huge and important. It takes time but it’s time well-spent. Are there any like tiny things that just have huge leverage in terms of, “Hey, this takes less than five minutes a day, but when I do it, it’s game-changing versus when I don’t”?

Erik Fisher
Yeah, I would say, I call it passing the baton to my future self. So, I’m near the end of my day today, and instead of, when you and I are done recording, jumping off and saying, “Okay, what’s for dinner?” and walking out the door, like actually sitting and cleaning up my desk and arranging my list of stuff. Now, again, I’ve already gone over what the list of stuff is for tomorrow on a weekly checklist kind of a basis, on a weekly review kind of thing.

But doing a closing, or a shutdown, or again passing the baton to my future self tomorrow morning, that shutdown, that ritual, is what’s going to make tomorrow morning, even if I feel maybe out of sorts or say something happens and I don’t get enough sleep and I’m struggling, I don’t have to struggle as hard or as much.

Pete Mockaitis
Okay. Well, that sounds like a nice visual metaphor in that your future self appreciates that, you’ve taken some time to hook up future Erik with a nice environment to flourish, so that’s awesome. Any other quick yet high-leverage things?

Erik Fisher
Cutting stuff off the list.

Pete Mockaitis
Amen. No, absolutely, it’s the fastest way to shrink your to-do list is to decide not to do it.

Erik Fisher
Or, better yet, better said, is decide not to do it now.

Pete Mockaitis
Now, is the now mean you’re going to do it later or you’ve decided now that you’re not going to do it ever?

Erik Fisher
It can be both but I was referring more to, “When is the right time to do it so that you’re not trying to overpack your days and your weeks?”

Pete Mockaitis
I dig.

Erik Fisher
So, yeah.

Pete Mockaitis
Cool. All right. Well, maybe we’ll zoom out a little bit. So, we kind of talked about some really super precise like tools or tactical things to do. But I’d love to hear kind of big picture. Boy, you’ve been running Beyond the To-Do List for, is it seven years now?

Erik Fisher
Yeah, we’re basically at the seven-year mark.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s so amazing. Well, congratulations. And you’re an inspiration for my podcast when I was thinking, “Does anybody want to listen to this kind of stuff? Let’s take a look around. Oh, hey, a good many of them do and Erik Fisher and Beyond the To-Do List is one good example.” So, thank you. Who knows if I hadn’t found a couple of inspiring examples, where would we be? So, thank you.

Erik Fisher
Thank you.

Pete Mockaitis
So, yeah, what are some themes that have come up again and again and again in terms of when people, they’re trying to be focused and productive and then take care of what’s really meaningful in their work and lives? What are kind of those foundational principles that pop up repeatedly?

Erik Fisher
Well, I kind of alluded to it a little bit just a moment ago with taking things off the list as well as kind of paring back and simplifying again the use of the phone, and I don’t want to go back into those things per se. But it’s just this idea that I think we have the wrong perspective when it comes to productivity. We think that, and I even had a conversation with, oh, I’m blanking on his name, Mike Sturm, that’s it, a couple of months ago, the idea between, “What’s the difference between the word efficiency and productivity?” And there was even another word, I forget what it was, but anyways.

Pete Mockaitis
Effectiveness?

Erik Fisher
That is it. I feel like you’ve listened to that episode.

Pete Mockaitis
I’m spying on you everywhere.

Erik Fisher
Nice. So, it was this kind of, and it was a real productivity whatever geek-out moment for me to have that conversation with him because there are different meanings to each of those three words and they’re all good in themselves and they all kind of fold in on each other. It kind of made me, I mean, it really made me think, I shouldn’t say, not kind of made me think. It really made me think. And it was just like, “You know what, in the end, it’s, ‘What are you trying to do? How much of it are you trying to get done? How much is enough even? And what’s overkill? Like, burn out and all that.’”

Again, when you go back to the whole sleep thing and whatever, but we don’t need to go there. It’s this idea that, Parkinson’s Law where work will expand to fill the time allotted. And so, if we can figure out how to more efficiently, or more fast-ly—which is not a word—get the work done to where we’re kind of breaking that law, we’re saying, “Hey, I’m going to get this work done faster than I allow for it to be done,” then suddenly you’ve freed up this time.

Then you have this question which, recently I was talking with the Get It Done guys, Stever Robbins, in one of my most recent episodes.

Pete Mockaitis
He’s so good.

Erik Fisher
And he was like, “Look, you’re sitting in a cubicle and you’re really good at getting your work done, and then they noticed you’re really good at getting your work done, and then they suddenly say, ‘Well, wait a second, we either haven’t been giving him enough work to do, or we have been underpaying him.’ They’re not going to give you the raise. Let’s put it there. They’re not going to go and give you a raise. What they’re going to do instead is say, “We aren’t giving you enough work to do because you’ve got it all done all day.”

And I’ve been in that position, by the way. I’ve been the person who hacked his cubicle and figured out how to get everything that I needed to get done, and then some, and run rings around my co-workers, and yet get paid no more than them, and have all this free time to play video games in my cubicle. More than a decade to 15 years ago now.

I’m kind of half ecstatic about how I figured out how to do that and half ashamed. But, that said, you see where I’m going with this, if you are working for yourself, you then suddenly have this quandary where if you’re getting things done faster, and you’re getting them all done, you can either start to wander into, “What else can I be doing, and add onto that, and fill my day even more?” which, again, it’s attractive to a lot of people, it’s like, “How much more stuff can I get done because I got this stuff that I was already used to getting done already done but faster?” You start to wander, though, into this place of unintentional burnout or unintentional status quo, kind of like with the phone as I was talking about earlier.

You use it originally for a few good things, and then it becomes the thing you use for all the things. And then you have booked yourself solid to where, you know, you’ve got a meeting, you’ve got five meetings a day, and 12 podcasts to record, and 29 blogposts to write, and/or videos to record, not to mention all the different Instagram stories and social media things you could be doing. It’s like, “Hold up. Which of the things that are the most…?” What was the third word? It wasn’t productivity and it wasn’t…

Pete Mockaitis
Effectiveness?

Erik Fisher
Effective. So, it’s then towards what effectiveness are you headed towards? What intentionality are you trying to get to end of the day, end of the week, end of the quarter? Actually, this is one of the biggest things since we talked, is I’ve been in a mastermind, and we’d go by the 12-week year. And, essentially, what that means is instead of 12 months in a year, there’s 12 weeks in a quarter, and we just kind of compress a year, and we say, “Okay, for this next sprint of three months, what is it that we want to accomplish? Like, for example, working on a book or something like that. And how far can we get?”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, and what I like about that is you call it a 12-week sprint, and there’s four 12-week periods, yields, 48 weeks, leaving four weeks for you to kind of relax a little bit between these sprints.

Erik Fisher
Yes, exactly, there’s actually more weeks in a year than the 12 times 4, so you get a little bit of breathing room in there to recalibrate, etc. But, yeah, that has been kind of the, I don’t know, the analyze everything, the, “Hold up, don’t add something new in.” There’s a lot of people out there, who’s like, “You’ve got to quit something to then start something.” That’s great and all. But also, what if we just quit something to quit something? What if we just eliminated things on the to-do list? What if we just said, “This is great to do but it’s not yielding a lot, so let’s just stop doing it altogether and not replace it with something else”?

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, that’s cool.

Erik Fisher
That’s where my head’s been.

Pete Mockaitis
Well, I appreciate it. And, I guess, my final question was going to be, you know, what have been some of the most transformational guests and ideas you’ve come across? And it sounds like you’ve already shared a few. But if anything is missing, now is your chance, let her rip.

Erik Fisher
All right. So, let’s see, so let me see if I can think back through. So, I mentioned Cal Newport, that’s in regards to the phone. My most recent episode with Michael Hyatt, we talked about killing distractions and his approach to how he did was I did with his phone, and that’s a really interesting one. Let’s see, I recently talked with Mike Sturm, and we talked about all that productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness. That’s a good one. Who else did I mention? Do you remember who else I mentioned? I can’t remember.

Pete Mockaitis
Cal Newport, Michael Hyatt.

Erik Fisher
Yes. Oh, Jaime Masters, that was the one about the nootropics. And we talked about time tracking. And, oh, we talked about absolute yes in that one as well. So, how everybody is like, “You know, you’ve got to learn how to say no so you don’t fill up your calendar and things like that.” She goes at it from the opposite perspective, where she’s like, “I’d love to say yes to everything but only the things that I’m willing to say, ‘Absolutely, yes,’ am I going to say yes to.” So, that’s actually another great kind of reframing of how to say no to things and has to do with opportunity costs. So, Jaime Masters, that’s another one that was very recent.

And then, James Clear, the habits, the Atomic Habits, I should say his “Atomic Habits” book that came out late last year. I talked to him about that. And that, essentially, has to do with filling in the gaps and looking at, in a new light, the old adage of, basically, habitualizing things so that you don’t have to lean in as much on like discipline or willpower because you’ve created that activity, that pattern, that consistency, that groove, of making the right choices, or enabling yourself to make the right choices easier.

Pete Mockaitis
Perfect. Well, Erik, this has been a real nice lineup. I’d like to hear about some of your favorite things now, if you could first give us a favorite quote.

Erik Fisher
I don’t know if I told you this one last time. Did you ask for quotes last time? I don’t remember.

Pete Mockaitis
I did. And I think it’s kind of fun if you reinforced, that’s cool. If you have a new one, that’s cool too.

Erik Fisher
Right. This is so self-centered of me to say this. My favorite quote is my own quote, it’s, “Good ideas come from many ideas.”

Pete Mockaitis
Yeah, I like it. And how about a favorite study, or experiment, or bit of research?

Erik Fisher
Oh, gosh. So, actually, I’ll point back to the study, the stuff that came out of, what’s his name, James Clear, the habit book. There’s a lot of science in the book that reinforces the different ways of habitualizing, so I’m going to have to claim that because he doesn’t come at it as a book writer or a business book writer. He comes at it as, “Hey, I have all this research. How do I formulate this into something that people can get something out of it because they need to know this?” So, it is really is a study in book form.

Pete Mockaitis
That’s cool. And how about a favorite tool?

Erik Fisher
So, I probably mentioned some of those but, again, one of my favorites is to go back to Brain.fm. One of the other ones is, actually, this one is called Otter.ai.

Pete Mockaitis
Oh, the transcription.

Erik Fisher
The transcription, yeah. I love, love, love that. So, being able to upload audio files into there and they can transcribe it, or just being able to like turn it on again on my iPad or my phone and I have it recorded and then send it to the cloud and it’ll start transcribing for me is also pretty cool.

Pete Mockaitis
And is there a particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks, you hear them say it back to you often?

Erik Fisher
Oh, that’s interesting. I think it comes down to me giving them permission to not get everything done.

Pete Mockaitis
They need an authority figure like yourself too.

Erik Fisher
Hey, you know, you can get it done, move it tomorrow. It’s fine. As long as you’re not dropping the ball or dropping balls. Like, it’s fine. It’s a matter of which one. Again, you can’t get everything done, not all the time, not at every moment. Like, right now, I’m talking to you. I’m not doing other things but I’m, hopefully, executing well on the thing I’m doing and choosing to do right now.

Pete Mockaitis
And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?

Erik Fisher
Yeah, perfect. It’d be BeyondTheToDoList.com.

Pete Mockaitis
All right. And a final challenge or call to action for those seeking to be awesome at their jobs?

Erik Fisher
I’m going to point people back to where we started and just say, “How much time can you go without your phone?” That’s my challenge.

Pete Mockaitis
Beautiful. Well, Erik, this has been a treat. Thanks for sharing the good word. I wish you lots of luck with your show Beyond the To-Do List, and your many other adventures.

Erik Fisher
Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

415: Pursuing Your Passion the Smart Way with Brad Stulberg

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Brad Stulberg says: "Do you control your passion or does your passion control you?"

Brad Stulberg explores the inherent contradiction between pursuing passion and balance…and what to do about it.

You’ll Learn:

  1. The three common paradoxes of passion
  2. The dangers of rooting your identity to a passion
  3. Why self-aware imbalance is often appropriate

About Brad

Brad Stulberg researches, writes, speaks, and coaches on health and human performance. His coaching practice includes working with athletes, entrepreneurs, and executives on their mental skills and overall well-being. He is a bestselling author of the books The Passion Paradox and Peak Performance and a columnist at Outside Magazine. Brad has also written for The New York Times, New York Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Wired, Forbes, and The Los Angeles Times. Previously, Stulberg worked as a consultant for McKinsey and Company, where he counseled some of the world’s top executives on a broad range of issues. An avid athlete and outdoor enthusiast, Stulberg lives in Northern California with his wife, son, and two cats. Follow him on Twitter @Bstulberg.

Items Mentioned in this Show:

Brad Stulberg Interview Transcript

Pete Mockaitis:                    Brad, welcome back to the How to be Awesome at Your Job podcast.

Brad Stulberg:                      Hey, thanks so much for having me.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, I’m excited to dig into your next book, but first I want to hear about your love of cats.

Brad Stulberg:                      My love of cats. How do you know I love cats?

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, there’s a form I have guests fill out about-

Brad Stulberg:                      Oh, I said I loved-

Pete Mockaitis:                    Oh, yeah, you totally … You just gave it up that you love cats. It’s also in your bio that you live in Northern California with wife, son and two cats. So you can’t escape it.

Brad Stulberg:                      I’ve got two, as you said, Sonny and Bryant and they’re endearing, adorable creatures. It’s like having two of the goofiest roommates that are just there and they don’t pay rent.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, tell me what are some of the goofy behaviors?

Brad Stulberg:                      The goofy behaviors. Well, let’s see. So Sonny, who is an orange tabby, she has, my wife and I joke, we call it office hours. So she is the cuddliest, most loving cat between 1:00 and 4:00 PM. Otherwise you can’t touch he. It’s so bizarre. She’ll come find you wherever you are in the afternoon and plop on your lap and just love on you. But then when 4:00 PM rolls around, she wants nothing to do with it. And then Bryant, everything about Bryant is interesting. We would have to record for hours and hours, I’d just have to follow him around with a video camera, but he’s just a total mess in the best way possible.

Pete Mockaitis:                    All right. Well, it sounds like that’s keeping things interesting and I also want to hear about some of the most interesting, surprising, fascinating discoveries you’ve made when researching The Passion Paradox.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, that sounds good. That’s a little bit more concrete than Bryant the cat.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, yeah, lay it on us.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, so the book is called The Passion Paradox and the title is pretty telling in the sense that the biggest discovery is so much of what conventional thinking around passion holds is all paradox. And there are three main paradoxes. The first is that people are told to find your passion, and there’s an expectation that you’re going to stumble upon something that will be like love at first sight and you’ll immediately feel energized and you’ll know this is the thing that I’m passionate about. That’s not how it works.

In the vast, vast, vast majority of the cases individuals cultivate passion over time and it doesn’t start out perfect and it’s that very belief and expectation that something should be perfect right away that actually gets in a lot of people’s way from ever growing into a passion.

Second big paradox is this notion that if you just follow your passion you’ll have a great life. And passion is a double-edged sword. Passion can absolutely be a wonderful gift and it can lead to great accomplishments, it could lead to a meaningful life, it can lead to great energy. At the same time passion can become a destructive curse. And that can happen in a few ways.

One is that the inertia of what you’re doing gets so strong that you can’t see beyond it and you get so swept up in what you’re doing that everything else falls away. And for a period of time that might be okay, but in the long term a lot of people end up with regrets. And then the second way that passion can take a negative turn is when you become more passionate about the external validation you get from doing something than the thing itself.

And this is a really, really, really subtle thing that happens to people. You start doing something because you’re interested in it. If you’re lucky you cultivate a passion, you love it. And then you start doing really well, and when you start doing well, you start getting recognized for doing well. And often what will happen is without someone even noticing it, the lotus of their passion shifts from the activity to all the recognition. So you love writing and then you make a best seller list and then suddenly you’re only happy if you’re on bestseller lists. You love your job and suddenly you’re only happy if you’re constantly noticed in meetings and you’re constantly getting promoted.

So it’s this fine line between being passionate about the activity itself versus being passionate about the recognition you got from it. The former, here’s the paradox. The former, if you’re passionate about the activity, that’s associated with overall life satisfaction and high performance. The latter, if you become passionate about the results, which is called obsessive passion, that is associated with burnout, angst, and depression.

Yeah, so there’s that and then the third thing I’ll lay it all on you because that’s what you asked for and then we can dive in more detail perhaps. The third thing is, that I can’t tell you how many times since I’ve graduated college, which is a little bit over a decade ago, I’ve been told two things. One is to find and follow my passion and the other is to live a balanced life, and this makes no sense because passion and balance are completely antithetical.

By definition when you’re passionate about something the world narrows and it’s the thing that you’re passionate about that is going to consume you. So that seems opposite to balance. And if you ask people when they feel most alive, very rarely does someone say, “It was when I had perfect balance.” Often what you’ll hear is, “It was when I was falling in love or when I was training for my first marathon or when I was launching a business or when I had a new kid.” Now, those are not very balanced times.

They’re describing time when they felt like they were like being consumed by something. Yet if you ask people over the course of a life, what does it mean to live a good life? Most people will say, “To have balance.” So again, both things are true at the same time. So it’s really about, how can you be passionate, go all in on things, get that good energy, but then be able to pivot to other things when the time is right. And that’s so much easier to say than to actually practice.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Brad, you are a master. Thank you. That is so much good stuff and we could spend hours unpacking that, maybe even more hours discussing this than the cat, I might say, in terms of all the nuances to be explored.

Brad Stulberg:                      The nuance of Bryant’s behavior. He contains multitude.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Oh boy. So let’s have some fun with this. All right. Well, I think each of those things you said makes great sense to me and sparks all kinds of curiosity. So why don’t we just dig into each in practice. So okay, for the find your passion advice you say we kind of have a little bit of expectation or hope that it’s going to be love at first sight. And in practice, it’s not. It’s more of a cultivation over time. So can you explain a little bit for what does the progression look like most often in terms of when folks got a passion alive at work for them, how did they get there?

Brad Stulberg:                      What’s interesting is the first thing that’s very important is this mindset shift. Again, if you have the expectation that you’re just going to stumble into an activity and you’re going to find your passion, that is the foremost barrier to actually having a passion because almost nothing is great right off the bat. And what’s very interesting is the research and passion parallels the research and love. So individuals that want to find the perfect partner, they end up constantly seeking versus someone that goes in and says, “You know what, I’m going to pursue good enough and I’m going to cultivate it and nourish it and maybe 30 years from now it will be perfect.” And there’s all kinds of research in relationships that shows that that mindset tends to lead to lasting love.

And it’s very much the same with passion. So going in and thinking of it less as this lightning striking and more as a curiosity for the things that interest you and then pursuing those interests, that’s the conduit into what becomes passion. And then when you’re pursuing the interests, the research is very clear here that there are three key things that help something perhaps become rooted in your life as a passion. And this is born out of a psychological theory called self-determination theory.

And what that states is that if an activity offers you autonomy, so you have some control over what you’re doing and when you’re doing it, if it offers you competence or mastery, so there’s a path of progression of improvement and if there’s a sense of belonging and whether that’s physical belonging, you’re actually working in a team or with other people or if it’s more psychological belonging, so you’re picking up a line where there have been craftspeople before you and there will be after you. Those three things tend to help interests transition from merely being an interest or a hobby into a passion.

Pete Mockaitis:                    I’m intrigued by the autonomy point because as I think about some passions very much are kind of team sports if you will. It could actually even be sports, hey, it’s basketball, you know, play in the basketball team. Or it could be music, I’m in the orchestra. Or it could be entrepreneurship, hey, my team is doing this thing. So how are you defining autonomy here?

Brad Stulberg:                      It’s a great question. Autonomy doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re going at it alone, but more so that there is room for you to chart your own path. So you might be playing on a team for sure, but I mean, if you have a coach that tells you exactly and I mean exactly how to style your game and what you should do minute-by-minute, day-by-day, that probably won’t be so happy whereas if you have some room to explore yourself and decide how you want to craft your game.

Same thing with the musician perhaps. There’s definitely autonomy in how you practice and most musicians, at least those that have passion, they’re in orchestras or they’re in arrangements where they also have some autonomy to explore their own style of music. And in a workplace setting, its this is just the difference between good management and micromanagement. Someone under good management should feel autonomy to drive their work, make decisions, take risks. Someone that’s being micromanaged often doesn’t feel that.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Okay, I got you.

Brad Stulberg:                      A great example to make this really concrete is actually what you’re doing right now, and I know that you’re passionate about your podcast and my guess is that when you first started going into podcast … You didn’t know podcasting was going to be the thing and my guess is also that you probably weren’t great right off the bat.

Pete Mockaitis:                    It’s true.

Brad Stulberg:                      There was a line of progression and yet with the podcast you have full autonomy. It’s your show. You decide who you’re going to interview. You decide the flow. There’s clear mastery and progression. I bet like this episode is going to sound a lot different than your first one. And there’s, of course, belonging because you’re sharing this with your audience and you’re getting to meet and have interesting conversations with people that have similar interests to you.

So I think that there’s no … It’s not ironic that podcasting has taken off because again, it’s something that people can start is an interest, very few people expect to be great right away and it fulfills those three criteria really clearly.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Indeed, it does. Well, I’d love to get your take on … Well, what are some things … Are there some activities or pursuits that by these criteria cannot become someone’s passion?

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, there are plenty. I think the first is that if you find yourself in a workplace situation where you are being terribly micromanaged or where everything that you do is pretty murky, and what I mean by that is there are no objective barometers of whether or not you’re improving or doing a good job, those are the kinds of jobs where people tend to get pretty frustrated and either burn out or they just kind of accept it and go through the motions.

Pete Mockaitis:                    I guess what I’m thinking is that the activity in a different environment or context could provide autonomy or mastery.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yes, totally. It’s often context-dependent, not activity-dependent. And I think this is really important for managers that are listening out there, You want your employees to be passionate and your job is then to create those conditions where people have the ability to pursue what interests them and they have autonomy, they have some sense of progression or mastery, and they feel like they belong. And the flip side is, if you’re being managed and you don’t feel that, it’s a great opportunity to have a conversation with who’s ever managing you about those things or perhaps it’s time to find a new job.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Okay. Well, there it is. So that’s how passion comes about. You’re curiously pursuing something that’s interesting and then if you got those ingredients of autonomy or pursuing confidence, mastery and sense of belonging, that can lead to hey, we got a passion here.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yes, and then the second paradox right is now awesome, I’m passionate, it’s all downhill from here, life is going to be great. And the common trap is that life is great and then suddenly you start crushing it at your passion and people start recognizing that and then you get attached to that recognition. And in the worst case your entire identity fuses with that recognition. So you’re only as good as your last podcast or you’re only as good as the last project that you took on.

And even worse, you’re only as good as how people received the last podcast or how people received the last project that you took on. And that’s a very precarious position to be in because that can set you up for all kinds of highs and lows in a really fragile sense of self-worth and identity.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah. Yeah, that’s powerful. What’s coming to mind for me right now is this interview in which … I think was on Ellen, in which Ronda Rousey, The Ultimate Fighter, who she lost a big match, I don’t know the details, and she was on Ellen talking about it and she’s just crying and it’s powerful because for one, hey, this is a tough fighter person who’s crying and two, she really articulates that notion in terms of like, “Well, if I’m not a champion, then what am I?”

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, that’s hard. And as I said, obsessive passion is associated with anxiety, depression, burn out and then it’s also associated with cheating. What’s really interesting is you look at someone like Elizabeth Holmes, who is the former founder and CEO of Theranos, which is the kind of sham pharmaceutical company, all kinds of fraudulent behavior. When she was being celebrated it was all about her passion. I believe it was the Washington Post that ran a story that basically said like, “Elizabeth Holmes is the most passionate, obsessed person there is and that’s why she’s so successful.”

And yet, it might have been that very passion and that very obsession that led her to lie when things weren’t going great in her company. Alex Rodriguez, the baseball player who we now know was using performance-enhancing drugs and steroids throughout his career, when he retired, even after all that he was interviewed by Forbes for his career advice and his number one piece of advice was “follow your passion.” So again, it’s this double edged sword where yeah, passion is great, but if all you care about is hitting the most home runs or all you care about is being the company that everyone’s talking about, well, when things don’t go well, you’re going to do anything possible to remedy that even if it’s not so ethical.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah, so that’s, you said double edged sword. That’s one way is you come attached to the sort of validations and externals instead of the thing itself and it can be-

Brad Stulberg:                      And I don’t want it to be negative. So let me also … So there are practices that can help you remedy this, and there are a whole bunch in the book, but the one that I find the most powerful it to mention here is just this notion of getting back to the work. So after a huge success like yes, pause, celebrate, feel good about it. Do that for 24, maybe 48 hours, but then get back to doing the work. There’s something about doing the work that is so humbling and that on a very visceral level, you feel it in your brain and in your bones. It reminds you that hey, I like the work. As much as the validation feels good, what really makes me tick is the process of doing the work.

The concrete example in my own life as a writer, when I write a story that has a very positive reception or for that matter, a very negative reception, a story I thought I would do great that doesn’t, I’ll let myself have those emotions for a day and then I really try to make a discipline of within 24 hours starting on the next thing, because otherwise I can get very caught up in this kind of cycle of like praise or negativity and then once that cycle grows roots, it becomes harder to step out of.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah, that’s really good stuff. And as I’m thinking there about the double-edged sword, you talk about consumption, I guess that’s the third paradox. So it’s a sword both in terms of you feeling like you’re pursuing a great life and loving it and digging it and having tons of fun with it, but also getting tempted perhaps to follow the external. I’m curious, you’ve got that practice there with regard to hey, when you get the celebration or the victory, you celebrate, then you return to the work. I guess I’m curious, are there any little internal indicators or like kind of early warning signs you might be on the lookout for? Like wait a minute, alert, alert, passion is starting to get externalized, you’ll correct now.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, it’s a great question. There are. The first one that comes to mind for me is if you notice massive changes in your mood based on how well something does in the outside world. So if you’re in a great mood and you go into a meeting and an idea you have isn’t while received or you don’t get to share as much as you would have hoped and the rest of your day is completely ruined. If that happens once or twice, fine. If that’s an ongoing pattern, like yikes.

If you do anything that has a kind of more broad social measurement scheme and what I’m thinking here is social media. So if you’re kind of obsessively checking your retweets or likes or comments, that is a sign of uh-oh, am I really in this to connect with other people and to create good work or am I in this because it feels really good to see how many people liked my post? And if it’s the latter then again, like what happens when you have a post that no one likes? Well, you feel like shit.

I think it’s important to state here that no one is 100% like disciplined or harmoniously passionate. We’re humans. Everyone likes to feel good. The thing is that you just have to realize that hey, that’s a normal behavior and if I catch myself engaging in it too often, it’s time to get back to the work. So don’t judge yourself and be like, “Oh, I’m obsessively passionate. I’m doomed.” It’s more like, “Oh, wow. I noticed myself caring quite a bit about external validation. Let me think about why did I get into this thing in the first place and have I actually done the activity itself recently? And if not, I should dive back into it.” Does that make sense?

Pete Mockaitis:                    Absolutely. Got it. Well, so now let’s talk about this passion and balance being antithetical. Passion can consume you and so then yeah, how do you play that game optimally in terms of if you want to feel alive so you want to have the passion, but you also don’t want to I guess let everything else fall apart in your life? What are your thoughts there?

Brad Stulberg:                      What I found in the research and reporting on the book is that there’s an expectation, a cultural expectation to have balance day-to-day. And when people hear balance, at least those people that I’ve surveyed, they often think or they often describe everything in it’s right place, in right proportion day after day. I wake up at this hour. I get my kids off to school. I do my yoga. I go to work. I listen to a podcast. I leave work at 5:00. I come home. I watch a TV show. I spend time with my kids. I cook dinner. I have passionate sex with my romantic partner and I sleep eight hours and then I do the same thing the next day.

If you can do that, great. If you can do that and you’re happy, great. Don’t change anything, that’s a great life. But I say that kind of laughing because most people can’t do that and then they get frustrated or they think that they’re doing something wrong when in fact, nothing’s wrong. There are times when it is good to be imbalanced. And those are the times when you’re really passionate about one of those elements in your life. So to try to force balance day in and day out, again, if it’s there, great, roll with it, but if it feels like you’re having to force it, that’s a pretty like narrow contracting space.

And it’s much better to allow yourself to actually go all in on the things that make you tick. And here’s the big kicker is, so long as you have enough self-awareness to realize when the trade-off is no longer worth it. I’m going to train for this Olympic cycle at the expense of my family and my friends. Okay. What happens if you don’t make this Olympic cycle or what happens to the next Olympic cycle? Those are the questions that people have to ask because as you’re pursuing this passion, the inertia of the thing that you’re doing is really strong and when that takes whole, it’s hard to have the self-awareness, to evaluate well, am I prioritizing? Am I evaluating these trade-offs as I should be?

There’s some fascinating research in the book that shows that individuals that are in the throes of passion, even if it’s a productive passion. So someone training for the Olympics or an entrepreneur starting a company, they show very similar changes in brain activity as somebody with an eating disorder. And that is because when someone with an eating disorder looks in the mirror, they often don’t see someone that is skin and bones. They actually often see someone that is fat, that is obese or overweight. They have a distorted view of reality.

Well, what is training for the Olympics or trying to start a company other than a distorted view of reality? We know only 0.1% of athletes ever make the Olympics. We know that something like 99% of startups fail. So it’s kind of delusional and in a neurochemical level, it’s the same thing that you’d see in someone with a pathological delusion. The difference is in the case of passion, you’re pointing at something that society says is productive, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less gripping. So the ability to maintain some self-awareness, to look in the mirror and see things as they actually are is so, so important when pursuing a passion.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Wow, that went in a very different direction that I thought that we’re passionate … Yeah, well, you said passion and then eating disorder, brain activity is the same. I was like, oh, okay, so it’s sort of like that obsessiveness, but now you in terms of like what we’re actually perceiving in terms of what is right in front of our face is wild.

Brad Stulberg:                      I mean, I’m sure that there’s some relationship due to the obsessiveness, but it’s really, it’s a perception thing. And this is a common thing, you hear about marriage is falling apart when someone starting a business and the significant other, it’s like the person completely loses self-awareness. The only thing that matters to them is the business and they don’t understand that they’re being a terrible spouse, a terrible parent, a terrible friend. They’re just so wrapped up in what they’re doing.

And again, I’m a firm believer that as long as you communicate with the other important people in your life, that those trade-offs are okay to make so long as you’re consciously making them. And once you stop consciously making them, that’s when all kinds of problems start.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah, I hear you. I also want to get your take on sort of how we go about lying to ourselves when we’re in the midst of this, like what are some kind of watch out words, sentences, phrases that if you hear yourself saying them that might make you think, wait a sec, let’s double-check that.

Brad Stulberg:                      It can be similar to another example, and this is a back to the paradox of passion is addiction. So the definition of addiction or at least the definition that I like to use, and this is one that’s pretty widely accepted in both the scientific and clinical communities, is the relentless pursuit of something despite negative consequences. And I would argue that the definition of passion is the relentless pursuit of something with productive consequences.

Often times those consequences are socially constructed and socially defined. An example, an Olympic swimmer spends between six and eight hours a day staring at a line in the water. They do this at the exclusion of their family, of other interests. With the remaining time they have, they eat a meticulous diet and they sleep. If that isn’t like abnormal behavior, then I don’t know what is. The difference is that it’s pointed at this thing, being an elite athlete, that society says is productive.

Whereas imagine like if swimming wasn’t a sport that people celebrated. Someone would diagnose that person with some sort of psychological psychiatric disorder. But again, it’s because it’s pointed at something that society says is productive. The reason that I use that example and I bring in addiction in this despite negative or despite positive consequences, I think the ways that we lie to ourselves even when we’re doing a productive passion is we ignore the negative consequences or we tell ourselves they don’t really matter.

And again, it’s so hard to maintain self-awareness because there’s so much inertia. I mean, another example to make this real for listeners is when you fall in love. Generally when people fall in love, all they can think about is the object of their affection. It’s like everything else disappears and passion can be pretty similar. Again, it has to be a practice of maintaining some self-awareness, and there are concrete things that you can do to keep self-awareness.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, lay it on us.

Brad Stulberg:                      What’s ironic here is that the way to maintain self-awareness in the pursuit of a passion is to get outside of yourself, because yourself becomes so wrapped up in what you’re doing. It’s like this web where only your passion is there. So some very simple things that you can do. One is to put yourself in situations where you’re experiencing awe. Go to an art gallery without your phone. Go on a day hike in a forest with no digital devices. There’s something about putting yourself in the way of beauty that kind of helps gain perspective and resets your brain to hey, like there’s more to life than this thing. I’m doing.

Another way to help with self-awareness is to have a close group of friends that you can really trust and make sure that they’re comfortable calling you out when you can’t see for yourself and then you have to listen to them. That’s the hard part because that’s when you’re going to lie to yourself. Your friend says, “Whoa, actually you’re a little bit overkill right now.” You’re gonna say, “No, I’m not. You don’t know what’s going on.” You have to make an agreement both with the friend to call you out and yourself took to listen to that friend.

If you’re not comfortable doing that, a really simple mental Jedi trick can be to pretend that one of your good friends was doing exactly what you’re doing and asked you for advice, what would you tell that friend? And then do that. It’s often very different than what you tell yourself. An example here that comes up often is you get an athlete that gets injured and they’re trying to train through the injury, which is so dumb and then you ask that athlete, well, like if your friend had the exact same issue and was trying to force themselves to the gym today, what would you say?

And you’d tell them, “Well, don’t go to the gym better to take a week off now than a year off later.” And then you say, “Well then why are you walking to the gym right now?” So it’s the ability to step outside of yourself that often helps you see what’s best for yourself in the midst of a passion. And then another simple practice is to reflect on mortality. There’s something about acknowledging the fact that you’re going to die one day that makes real clear what actually matters and it helps point you in that direction.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Yeah. Well, that’s good stuff. Yeah, it’s heavy and it’s excellent. Maybe because you share an example of someone that you’ve encountered that you think is doing the passion thing really well. Maybe if you can particularly in sort of their career.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah. There are lots of people, which is great. It’s very feasible and it’s very doable. Someone that comes to mind is an executive that I’ve coached and worked with quite a bit. She is at top five position at a Fortune 25 company.

Pete Mockaitis:                    So it’s only 2,500 people in the world it could be.

Brad Stulberg:                      Yeah, I know.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Mathematically, wrong to be speculating.

Brad Stulberg:                      That’s as much as I’ll give, but you guys can do the research. This individual has been so good about setting goals and progression markers that are fully within this person’s control and then judging herself and whether or not she executes on those progression markers. Very, very good at ignoring to a large extent all the noise around her and what other people think, especially because when you’re in a big company like that so much of that is just political wind. And if you get caught in the political wind, you’re going to get blown around.

So the first thing that comes to mind is a relentless pursuit of the things that you could control and judging yourself only on those things. The other thing is completely sacrificing from this idea of balance and instead thinking about boundaries and presence. And what that means is setting real, clear boundaries about these are the times I’m going all in and these are the times I’m going to be going all in with something else, and that can be the difference between work and family, and then bringing full presence to those things.

Versus what so many people do and it’s a common trap is when you’re at work, you’re like 80% at work, but 20% dealing with family and friends. And when you’re with family and friends you’re 70% with family and friends, but 30% checking your phone and at work. Versus being really, really stringent about 100% there and then 100% there. And then evaluating trade-offs and making trade-offs. You have to give up a lot to be a leader in an organization like that, and this individual quarterly reflects on her core values and makes sure that the way that she’s spending her time is aligned with those core values and has made some real changes as a result of what’s come up.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Very nice. Brad, tell me-

Brad Stulberg:                      It’s doable though, which is great. It’s actually very doable. It’s just that, and this is part of the reason if not the whole reason that I wrote this book. This is not stuff that I was told going into the workforce, not stuff that I was told once I was in the workforce. These vague terms are thrown around, find your passion, follow your passion, have balance. And I wasn’t really sure what it meant and I saw myself falling into some of the traps of the obsessive bad passion and I also saw myself being so immersed in what I was doing that I was starting to question like, is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? Maybe it’s just a thing but it’s both good and bad.

And when I started looking at the research, it’s kind of what I found was that wow, the way that people talk about this topic, which is so often talked about is completely out of sync with the truth and the nuance involved.

 

Pete Mockaitis:                    That’s beautiful. Thank you. Well, now you can share with us a favorite quote so that you find inspiring.

Brad Stulberg:                      It’s actually very simple. The Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “This is it.” And I actually have a little bracelet that just has a charm that says, “This is it,” on it. And I think that that’s a wonderful reminder to be present. It’s basically like whatever is in front of you, that’s what’s happening right now. It’s an especially helpful practice for me with a one-year-old at home, sleepless nights, middle of the night he’s crying. It’s really easy to get lost in a pretty negative thought space. But nope, this is it, this is what’s happening right now. How can I be present for it and deal with it?

Pete Mockaitis:                    Thank you. And how about a favorite study or experiment or bit of research?

Brad Stulberg:                      The research that I’ve been sharing is top of mind for me. And I think just this notion of obsessive versus harmonious passion or being passionate about results versus the thing itself and just a strong relationship in the former to anxiety, depression and burnout and in the latter, to performance, meaning, and life satisfaction and how they’re both passions, it’s just like in which direction are they pointed and how at different times of people’s lives they’re in different ends of that spectrum. That’s to me it’s so fascinating and so important to be aware of because that can be the difference between a long fruitful career and a not so long rocky career.

Pete Mockaitis:                    And how about a favorite book?

Brad Stulberg:                      Oh my gosh, really? I have so many. How many am I allowed to go over?

Pete Mockaitis:                    We’ll say three-ish.

Brad Stulberg:                      Three-ish. All right. It’s funny. I get asked this question sometimes and I try not to have just like a can three books because I really think that the books are kind of … It’s like the right book for the right person at the right time. So what are my three favorite books right now? So Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig is a perennial favorite. I think that that book is always going to be in my top three, and then I’m going to pair it, I’m going to cheat. I’m going to pair it with the sequel Lila, which is less read, but an equally phenomenal book. So there’s that.

This is so tough. I’m reading Devotions right now by Mary Oliver, the poet that just passed away, which is a collection of her best poems and that feels like a favorite book right now. That woman can just get to the truth of how things are in so few words in a very lyrical way. So that’s a beautiful book. And then my third favorite book right now is probably a book called The Art of Living, which is by Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s the Zen Master whose quote this is it I just shared.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well, thank you. And how about a favorite tool so that helps you be awesome at your job?

Brad Stulberg:                      Meditation. That is a daily practice for me and it is so helpful in separating myself from my thoughts and my feelings and allowing me to have a more stable base upon which I work out of and then also allowing me to not get so attached to any one thing at any one point in time.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Is there particular nugget you share that really seems to connect and resonate with folks as you’re conveying this wisdom to them?

Brad Stulberg:                      I think it’s really important to ask yourself do you control your passion or does your passion control you? That’s kind of the heart of it. And if you control your passion, you’re in good shape. If your passion controls you, maybe consider some changes. And then equally important is this notion that passion is an ongoing practice. So it’s not a one time thing. So just because you control your passion right now doesn’t mean that that can’t change and just because your passion might control you right now doesn’t mean that can’t change. So it’s shift in mindset and to see passion is a practice and there are skills that support that practice and you have to develop them.

Pete Mockaitis:                    And Brad, if folks want to learn more or get in touch with, where to point them?

Brad Stulberg:                      So you can get in touch on Twitter where I am @BStulberg. So first initial of Brad and then my last name. And then through my website, which is www.BradStulberg.com.

Pete Mockaitis:                    And do you have a final challenge or call to action for folks so they could be awesome at their jobs?

Brad Stulberg:                      I obviously am going to encourage folks to read the book. I’m proud of it. It’s my best work yet. There’s a lot of things in there that have certainly had a huge impact on my career and my life outside of my career. So I’d love it if people consider reading the book. And then the second thing is to do something active for 30 minutes a day, five days a week. If you are already, great, keep doing what you’re doing. And if not, there are few things that are more transformative.

We spent a lot of time talking about this neat psychological stuff, but just try to move your body regularly and it doesn’t have to be formal exercise. It can be walking. It can be taking the stairs always that adds up to about 30 minutes, but move your body. That’s something that’s kind of getting more and more lost in our modern world, and it’s unfortunate.

Pete Mockaitis:                    Well Brad, thank you so much for sharing the goods and I wish you tons of luck with the book, The Passion Paradox, and all your adventures.

Brad Stulberg:    Thanks so much Pete. I really enjoyed being on your show.